Off Target

(Photo: Just can’t help themselves or not just their fault?)

Everyone has a right to a living wage. But just what that wage should be — or who should have to pay it — is a debate that has been raging through Chicago’s city council this summer, possibly with disastrous consequences. On July 26, the council will vote on a bill, sponsored by Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward), to require big-box retailers doing business within the City of Chicago — but not the smaller local stores that employ the bulk of Chicago retail workers — to pay their employees a minimum wage of $10 an hour with benefits, eventually rising to $13 an hour. On the face of it a beneficial idea for workers, if it can be put into practice without workers losing their jobs.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s most popular big-box chain, Target Corp., has threatened to cancel several planned new stores in the city, and even to consider closing its existing Chicago stores, with Walmart following with similar threats, triggering an avalanche of criticism aimed at retailer and city council alike (see Chicago Tribune coverage of the controversy here and here, and Crain’s Chicago Business coverage here).

Quoted in the Tribune, Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward) called the threat “disingenous and disrespectful of city residents,” and said that, with $1 billion in untapped purchasing power in underserved Chicago neighborhoods, big-box retailers will remain in Chicago because “the money is here.” However, some South Side community members quoted in the same article are not so sure. Said Dr. Leon Finney of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, “I’m more interested in having a job than a living wage.” More pointed criticism is to be had from Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God, also on the South Side: “This is going to be very harmful to the city of Chicago, to the African-American people who want jobs and Wal-Marts.”

Opinions on the proposed legislation are no less conflicted on the national level. As noted on Washington communications consultant Sarah Massey’s progressive blog, Own the Press, even the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI) was pushing for less of an increase during this summer’s failed attempt to raise the federal minimum wage. EPI sought a more modulated increase from $5.15 to $7.25 by 2009, to be applied equally to all employers. However, an Op-Ed piece appearing on the EPI website actually supports Chicago’s proposed $10 wage, essentially saying that Walmart is big enough to afford the higher pay scale, while sidestepping entirely the proposal’s discriminatory impact.

I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Walmart ( I emerged from the one visit I ever made to the downmarket, messy-shelved retailer in far-west suburban Wisconsin feeling positively dirty), but I don’t see how much economic harm their presence could do in a hypothetical depressed far South Side Chicago community where many other local businesses pulled out years ago. I also can’t imagine not being able to hop on a downtown ‘L’ and head to my beloved South Loop Target on Roosevelt and Clark for…well for just about anything really. Whether for employment, convenience, or price, in the right locations both of these retailers have their place in Hogtown. I wouldn’t want them everywhere in town, but I definitely recognize the benefit of their presence.

What I don’t understand is why the Chicago city council has set its sights squarely and singly on big-box retailers, instead of on all city retailers. Just because the city council thinks Target and Walmart can better afford to pay a higher wage than can a smaller local retailer doesn’t make the proposed legislation any less unfair. If Chicago Aldermen think a wage below $10 is unlivable for a Target employee, why do they think it’s acceptable for a mom-and-pop corner grocer or local fast-food outlet to pay their employees — the overwhelming majority of Chicago retail employees — $5.15 an hour? And since the $10 living wage won’t be seen by the majority of Chicago retail workers, how exactly does it fix the problem?

Moreover, why would Target or Walmart want to retain a presence in a city whose legislative body sought to levy upon them what would essentially be an extra tax to do business in the city that local retailers were exempted from? That sounds a lot like a protected market to me, and the point of a protected market is to keep outside business interests out. If I were on the city council, I wouldn’t be taking the threatened pullout of the big-boxes too lightly. A July 18 editorial in the Chicago Tribune cautioned the city council in a similar vein.

Though if anything will give pause to the city council, it will more likely be the decision handed down today in Maryland. That state sought to require Walmart to provide higher benefits for Maryland workers than the retailer provided to workers in other states. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz put the reins to that state’s proposal, saying that the law would have improperly required the retailer to track employee benefits in differing manners based on location, a requirement contravened by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The echo of the Maryland judgment on the Chicago proposal remains to be seen.

No matter what, it’s undisputable that retail workers in Chicago and across the country deserve better wages, but they also deserve a political strategy that will actually achieve those wages instead of potentially losing jobs. Flipping the economic bird to a few specific retailers who’ve done nothing wrong other than to follow the pack is not that strategy. Setting rules for the entire pack to follow would be a better approach, and certainly a more just one.

Besides, if Target goes, where in the world will downtown Chicago residents shop for cheap computer desks, floor lamps, and balcony furniture? I know, at that shiny new downtown Ikea courted in a similarly backhanded fashion by the City of Chicago that recently opened.

In suburban Bolingbrook.

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