While Wal-Mart has long been criticized for paying low-wages, the mega-retailer's insistence on expanding its reach in the Chicago market could end up lifting the floor on wages in those large swathes of the city made up of tax increment financing (TIF) districts.
For those who support a Wal-Mart expansion into the South Side of Chicago, January marked yet another month of setbacks in the City Council. First, Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke (14th Ward) declined to call a proposal for a vote that would clear the way for the mega-retailer to break ground in the Chatham neighborhood. Not even a frustrated Mayor Daley could twist enough arms to move the proposal forward. The delay, in turn, put more pressure on the project's developer, who is now facing foreclosure on the Chatham lot. Even with the threat of a lawsuit looming, Daley is leaving it to alderman to muster the political support.
In an effort to keep some momentum going, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) extended an aldermanic "invite" to Wal-Mart, via a resolution, to open five new Chicago stores. We watched with skepticism as he made the case on the council floor that "any job is better that no job." Apparently, his colleagues weren't moved either; Beale himself was the sole council member to sign onto the measure (PDF). Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the mega-retailer.
But it looks like there could be some consensus around a different -- and more progressive -- proposal: Burke's "compromise" living-wage deal, which could end up lifting the floor on wages across the entire city. Medill reports:
A long-delayed living wage ordinance could be revived when the City Council’s Finance Committee meets next month. The bill would obligate expanding companies that accept public subsidies and have more than 50 employees to pay their workers no less than $11.03 per hour.
Ald. Ed Burke planned to propose a version of bill on Monday, Jan. 11 but withdrew it because it did not have enough support, said Burke spokesman Donal Quinlan. But Quinlan said there is a good chance that there will be enough of a political consensus by the scheduled Feb. 8 Finance Committee meeting to propose it then.
Companies that both "directly or indirectly" benefit from public subsidies would be included in the agreement.
This is definitely a proposal to watch closely. One of the major complaints about Daley's TIF network is that there is no way of really knowing whether the subsidies provided to developers and corporations ultimately provide tangible returns to the taxpayers' who foot the bill. If this ordinance passes, some public benefit would be baked into the cake. Considering that nearly a third of the city's acreage is covered by TIFs, the potential impact on wages can't be understated.
But in yet another ironic twist, because the Chatham Ridge TIF was scheduled to expire in 2009, Wal-Mart itself would be exempt under Burke's measure. Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward) is having none of that; she plans to introduce an amendment that would draw the proposed store under the ordinance.
There are a few reasons to feel optimistic about this measure. First off, Wal-Mart has invested too much at this point to simply walk away from the deal. Then there's the fact that the living wage measure is being floated by one of the most powerful aldermen on the council. And finally, there's an election lurking just around the corner. As Lyle tells us, "no one wants this to play out next October or November."
Looming elections helped move the big box living wage and affordable housing ordinances through the council, notes the Grassroots Collaborative's Amisha Patel. "This could be the litmus test before the next aldermanic elections," she tell us.
Rev. Booker Vance of the Good Jobs Chicago Coalition points out that, with TIF reform already getting so much attention in Chicago, it's going to be awfully hard for aldermen to defend giving any mega-retailer public funds in exchange for poverty wages. "Wal-Mart is a multi-billion corporation," he says. "All we want is to make enough to get by."
In a sign that the strategy just might work, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward) tells the Defender this week that fellow South Side alderman are putting up "significant resistance" to the expansion. And the revelation that Wal-Mart has been manufacturing "grassroots" support doesn't reflect well on their claims of public support.
Stay tuned ...