Lamenting the New Chicago Big Box Ordinance

Well, the Chicago city council exercised its will yesterday, passing the controversial big-box $10 wage bill by a veto-proof 35 to 14 margin. Previous discussion here on Chicago Carless examined both sides of the issue. Now, as the dust settles and the city holds its collective breath and waits to see whether and when Walmart or Target flee the city for more profitable, suburban pastures, I can’t help but feel an entire side of the debate was, simply, missing.

To my mind, the ability of stores like Walmart to dictate employee wages and supplier prices is a national one, needing a national solution. As long as there are political jurisdictions out there where the big-box retailers can pay their employees low wages at a nice profit, big boxes will continue to be built in them, while economically activist cities like Chicago face the loss of jobs and retail options.

The vote having passed, let’s now see how long it takes for that outcome to happen. Politically correct rhetoric has clouded the debate around the big-box wage bill for weeks. But that rhetoric will fade with time. Let’s see how proud all the wage bill’s supporters will be a year from now if, say, the Roosevelt Road Target hangs out a “This Store Closing” sign and Walmart is still nowhere to be found on the south and west sides. If that happens, yesterday’s bill supporters will probably lay blame on a lot of people — but I bet not on themselves.

Chicago, not to mention any local municipality, cannot make the national juggernaut that is Walmart change its ways. Chicagoans want change, and, really, in this debate that has meant Chicago union organizers want change. Given the size and reach of big boxes like Walmart, wouldn’t it be useful to call on our Congressmen and Senators in Washington? When did that happen? Perhaps I missed that rallying cry.

No matter what Chicago Aldermen would like to believe, the big-box retailers play their game of economic tag on a national playing field. Because of that, local laws out here in the provinces can’t hold much sway. Frankly, this entire debate seems to me to have been nothing more than a city full of liberals (and mind you, I’m one myself) feeling so powerless to effect change at the national level that they gave up even trying, hoping instead to make a stand at the local level where the only people they can hurt is Chicagoans, not Walmart.

Most of all, I would like to know where in this entire debate has been the backup plan for what this city and its Aldermen intend to do if the worst really does come to pass because of this ordinance. What do we do as a city if we lose the big boxes we’ve got, lose shopping choice, lose jobs, lose a big chunk of the sales tax base? In case you haven’t noticed, none of the ordinance’s supporters has ever said one word about that.

I wonder why that is. Perhaps because all the fears expressed by community leaders, the mayor, 14 Aldermen, and the Chicago Tribune are baseless? Or maybe just because of age-old Chicago political hubris…and myopia.

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[Browse my original coverage of Chicago's big-box wage controversy here, and a summary of comments and regularly updated news articles surrounding the debate here.]

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