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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.]

Categories: Chicago Big-Box Wage Debate Labor Politics

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

5 replies

  1. 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…

  2. 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…

  3. 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…

  4. I think there’s a lot of retail that fits perfectly into its niche in Chicago, supporting local consumers and utilizing local products. Perhaps not everywhere, but the community is definitely there.

    However, I argued the “conscience” angle over at Gapers Block yesterday. Essentially, the big boxes moved into retail areas in Chicago (or more recently with Walmart, wanted to move into them) where local retail had already substantially died off on its own. Unlike the story in the rest of the country, the big boxes didn’t kill off local retail in the neighborhoods where they located here.

    Prior to their arrival in the early 1990s, this was a city of dying State Street retailers, a couple of Kmarts, and a lot of people bumming rides to shop in the suburbs. Not that the big boxes magically fixed that state of affairs — Chicago came out of it on its own. But Target did come in to fit a niche that simply wasn’t being addressed anymore.

    Our Target on Roosevelt Road replaced a giant empty field. Targets on Addison Road and Diversey Avenue replaced previous retailers who left town. Walmart wanted to go into the south and west sides where retailers are simply thin on the ground, if there at all. The big boxes were not supplemental retail options or supplemental retail employers in those neighborhoods. They were pretty much the whole ballgame.

    In Chicago, the big boxes were of greater benefit than they were in a lot of the rest of the country. People in this town seem to forget what retail life was like before they came to town. One commenter on Gapers Block said “perhaps” other retailers will come in to fill the niche left by a big box pullout. But it seems to me if any retailer were interested in that market, they’d be here already.

    The last thing I want to see is viable stores in economically healthy neighborhoods turn into shuttered hulks in communities with more people on the unemployment rolls. And that was the experience in this city before the big boxes. As with Marshall Field’s turning into Macy’s, retail here died on its own, long, long before the national chains started to move in.

    Unfortunately, most people here are not brave enough to admit that.

  5. You’re right, Mike, that the Wal-Mart issue is way bigger than Chicago. To be precise, it’s an international workers problem that needs to be addressed at WTO and with the US Trade Representative. That said – since so many folks of conscience came together for the Big Box retailer fight, where is the plan to introduce sustainable retail development in Chicago?

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