On Target

(Credit: Jef poskanzer.)

Today, an end of sorts finally came to Chicago’s months-long big-box wage debate when, as expected, the City Council did not have enough votes to override the mayoral veto applied to the controversial new $10 wage ordinance earlier this week. The law, championed strongly by far-north-side alderman Joe Moore–of dubious foie gras ban fame–would have required all large retailers in the city to offer workers a $10 wage and $3 in benefits for every hour worked beginning in 2010. (Find background coverage in my Chicago Big-Box Wage Debate archive and del.icio.us newspaper article archive).

On Monday, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley exercised his veto power for the first time in his 17 years as head Windy City honcho to kill the wage ordinance–a veto that endured after City Hall was able to convince several aldermen to join the mayor in opposing the controversial law. As reported in the Sun-Times, Mayor Daley “played the race card” when explaining his opposition to the law Tuesday at a rally held on the lot of a planned Target store placed on hold by the big-box retailer in response to the city’s new wage requirements. According to hizzoner, Joe Moore and other north and southwest side politicians didn’t bat an eye when Target built big-box stores in those sections of the city. Said Daley, “It was all right for the north and southwest sides to get big boxes before this. No one said anything. All the sudden, when we talk about economic development in the black community, there’s something wrong.”

In reality, the racial angle is less supportable. Some Aldermen and religious leaders from depressed, black neighborhoods on the south and west sides of Chicago where Target and Walmart want to locate new stores themselves came out vociferously in favor of the $10 wage law. But it’s true that many others opposed it, leading community organizing group ACORN to resort to bussing in protesters from other parts of the state. One ordinance-opposing Alderman in particular, Carrie Ausin (34th Ward), took insult to the non-resident protesters, referring to them in the Sun-Times as forces of “satan”.

Not that Tuesday was the first time outside interlopers chimed into the city’s minimum wage debate. In August, city officials from San Francisco and Santa Fe spoke in favor of the wage law before Chicago’s city council, leading Mayor Daley to retort, “Manage your own city. We manage here.”

He had a good point. The poster-child towns in which so-called “living-wage” laws have been passed or are pending, including Washington, D.C., and the above two cities, are far smaller than Chicago, with, consequently, far smaller employment and community-development problems. Given that you could fit all three of those cities comfortably into the land area of Chicago and still have room to throw in Milwaukee, it’s apparent that Hogtown’s problems are of a higher order. We have huge swaths of city where the urban fabric sits woefully unraveled, where you can travel for a mile or more without finding a restaurant, or a convenience store, or, frankly, a local, legal means of employment. When the nearest option is no option at all, it’s Chicago’s poorest residents who suffer, not Walmart, when high-minded politicians decide to push away big-box retailers.

My D.C. colleague, labor-rights communicator Sarah Massey, points out on her Own the Press blog that big boxes always demand financial and tax incentives from municipalities, a reason why the economic justice community “took this fight to City Hall”. That’s true, but it’s not the only reason. As I commented in July, the big-box retailers play their game of economic tag on a national playing field, not a local one. Because the labor-rights movement has found it unfortunately and astoundingly difficult in the current political climate to afford any change in wage laws at the national level, the debate is now at the door of municipal city halls. But that doesn’t mean labor will be any more successful there. When faced with a restrictive wage law out in the provinces, all Target or Walmart need do is pack up and go find a less-restrictive province–exactly what they both threatened to do after Chicago’s $10 wage law passed in July.

Either way, final closure on the big-box wage saga will not come today. Several aldermen and religious leaders who supported the law are already calling for a non-binding (as in, no force of law whatsoever) citywide wage referendum to go before voters on next February’s ballot, and union leaders are threatening to run opposition candidates in the wards of aldermen who opposed the law. So while Target and Walmart can now feel free to do business on the south and west sides of Hogtown, residents across the city will still be mired in this contentious–and now futile–dialogue for months to come.

Perhaps only with the eventual opening of new big-box stores in Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods, with the new jobs and new commerce that the retailers will generate on the ground, will suporters of the defunct law finally be able to see the coming of the big boxes in Chicago as a uniquely good thing. Not appropriate for every city or even every Chicago neighborhood. But the best–and only–game in town for Chicago ‘hoods in greatest need of a commercial revival.

And then maybe Joe Moore will finally get his nose out of the south side and the west side and attend to the needs of his own constituents. After a year of City Council foibles, that would truly make a change: aldermen working for the Chicagoans who actually voted them in, not for those who inhabit other wards.

Or those that inhabit barnyards, for that matter.

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