FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com
(DV) Street: Score One for Justice in Chicago







Score One For Justice in Chicago
by Paul Street
July 29, 2006

Send this page to a friend! (click here)


Good for Chicago -- they did it. They passed a living wage ordinance requiring “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart and Target to pay their workers at least $10 an hour along with $3 an hour worth of benefits as part of the cost of doing business in the city by the year 2010. The law applies to any and all stores that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and gross more than $1 billion annually. (Erick Eckholm, “Chicago Orders ‘Big Box’ Stores to Raise Their Wages,” New York Times, 27 July 2006, A1)


By “they,” I especially mean rank-and-file community and labor activists, who reflected and organized mass support for the “big box” law in the city’s large number of disproportionately poor black and Latino wards.


The ordinance, which passed the Chicago City Council by a vote of 35 to 14, is opposed by the city’s openly corporation- and Bush-friendly "Democratic" Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose political influence has declined in the wake of recent municipal corruption scandals. According to Daley, the new law will “impede economic growth” and shrink tax revenues in the city.  


Wal-Mart, Target, and other large-scale corporate retailers can weep and moan to their heart’s content.  They can claim all they want that the new wage law “puts politics ahead of working men and women” -- Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley’s immediate claim after the bill was passed. They can argue all they wish that the ordinance will cause big retailers to “close” operations in Chicago. Target is already saying that it may delay or cancel the opening of three stores on the city’s South Side. 


The truth of the matter is that Wal-Mart and other giant retailers can easily afford to pay $10 an hour (the starting wage at Costco) within and beyond Chicago. Having saturated the nation’s suburban markets some time ago, moreover, Wal-Mart wants and needs to operate in huge urban environment like Chicago. They have no intention of abandoning the city. As the Brennan Center for Justice told the New York Times last Wednesday, moreover, numerous large municipalities in the U.S. have set across-the-board minimum-wage requirements for all but tiny businesses without compelling mass retailers to leave. (Eckholm, "Chicago Orders")


Wal-Mart’s claim of special concern for “working men and women” within and beyond the predominantly black neighborhoods through which it has sought to enter Chicago is worse than disingenuous. Offering wage and benefits so low that a significant portion of its workforce qualifies for Food Stamps, Medicaid, and other forms of public assistance, Wal-Mart has a long and rich record of breaking labor, employment, and civil rights laws.  It is what Simon Head, a fellow at the mainstream Century Foundation, calls “a template of 21st-century capitalism ... a capitalism that resembles a capitalism of 100 years ago” in that it “combines the extremely dynamic use of technology with a very authoritarian and ruthless managerial culture." (Steven Greenhouse, "Wal-Mart, A Nation Unto Itself," New York Times, April 17, 2004)


As black Chicago resident, researcher, and activist Dorian T. Warren told the black daily Chicago Defender two years ago, "Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the world and it is also the largest discriminator in the world.  Think of every possible civil and human rights law on the books and chances are Wal-Mart has broken it." 


Warren also noted the negative impact that Wal-Mart's global purchasing practices have on U.S. manufacturing employment, the decline of which has especially harmed African-Americans. "We all love a good bargain and cheap goods at low prices," he told the Defender, but "to bring us those low prices we thirst for, Wal-Mart brought $12 billion in merchandise from China in 2002 -- 10 percent of all Chinese exports to the U.S. Wal-Mart is actually eliminating jobs in this country by boosting the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries like China to bring us those cheap goods. We are shopping ourselves out of jobs and paying the costs while Wal-Mart profits, destroying our standards of living and our communities along the way.  Cheap prices have expensive consequences." (Warren was quoted in Ferman Mentrell Beckless, “‘Wal-Mart Will Cost Us Jobs,’” Chicago Defender, May 19, 2004, p.3)


As one indication of its “ruthless managerial culture,” the company makes it notoriously difficult for its “team members” (as the company likes it calls its workers) to obtain benefits. Wal-Mart's large number and percentage of part-time employees do not become eligible for health insurance until they put in two years at the firm. Even after that period, they are not permitted to buy coverage for their families. Thanks to exceedingly high deductibles and co-payments, moreover, full-time Wal-Mart workers with health insurance pay for more than 40 percent of their coverage. Four years ago, Wal-Mart changed its definition of part-time work from 28 to 34 hours a week.   


The negative impacts of Wal-Mart’s “authoritarian” and regressive practices are hardly restricted to Wal-Mart employees. The anti-union retail colossus sets the pace for an inter-capitalist “race to the bottom” of the wage and benefit scale, providing other retail chains with an excuse for requiring their own workers to give back hard-won gains. A 2004 grocery strike in southern California was sparked by the determination of that region's leading supermarket chains to increase the amount contributed by workers to their "employer-provided" health insurance programs. The justification cited by managers was the threat of competition from Wal-Mart. The resulting conflict was widely called "a Wal-Mart strike" even though the Walton family's holdings weren't directly involved.


The coming of “big-box” Wal-Marts (complete with full-service grocery stores) to Chicago is likely to depress the wages of workers in the city’s unionized Dominick’s and Jewel supermarkets. At the same time, as the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development has noted, Wal-Mart can be expected to take down a considerable number of local retail businesses who will be unable to compete with the retail giant, thereby eliminating as many jobs as Wal-Mart will bring to the Midwest Metropolis.     


In seeking to enter Chicago through two predominantly African-American neighborhoods, thereby sparking the grassroots campaign that culminated in last Wednesday’s ordinance, Wal-Mart calculated that black Chicagoans were so desperate for employment and low-cost goods that they would ignore the company’s rich record of tyranny and exploitation. With a supply chain firmly rooted in the brutal labor camps of repressive China, Wal-Mart figures that the path to Chicago’s pot of retail gold passes though abandoned city streets that are lined with boarded-up shops, vacant lots, storefront churches, and ubiquitous corner groceries and liquor stores. 


What it didn’t figure on was the presence of neighborhood residents and activists capable of calculating the costly source of Wal-Mart’s low-price success and the limits of what Wal-Mart’s low-road path to retail hegemony offers inner city communities.  


Ten dollars an hour is nothing to get over-excited about, given the ever-escalating price of basic expenditures in Chicago. For those Wal-Mart “team members” who are not relegated to the part-time, no-benefit workforce, that hourly rate translates into just $20,000 a year, far below the real cost of living in a major metropolis like Chicago. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the real no-frills cost of living for a single parent and two children (the typical welfare unit) in Chicago, based on what it calls "a basic family budget" (one that takes into account housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, and other necessities and taxes), was $35,307 in 2001. (Economic Policy Institute, Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families [Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2001, pp. 1-43, Table A4.2]) The comparable statistic for 2010 will be considerably higher.        

Still, $10 beats $7.25 (the company's current entry-level wage in the Chicago area) and the message from Chicago’s black and Latino wards and labor and community-based organizations is loud and clear: “We need jobs and we need adequate retail services in our communities, but we have our pride. We need and deserve a livable wage. We need and deserve adequate health care. But we’re not so poor and marginal and desperate that we are about to sell our dignity and souls to the false and contradictory promises of ‘low prices’ and ‘get a job, any job.’ Even slaves had jobs, technically speaking.  At the same time, we know that big corporate retailers like Wal-Mart are themselves desperate to gain favored access to big, central-city markets and we are going to exercise democratic and social control over significant aspect of our material and social experience. We are going to work together and with and through local public authorities to put employers and this country on a higher road.” 

It’s a message that much of America, within and beyond the central cities, would do well to hear and adapt. And it's a good message to hear from the city's black and Latino neighborhoods during the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in July of 2006. As is rarely recalled, King died while leading a campaign to lift the security, income, and dignity of the black working poor in Memphis, Tennessee -- an effort he connected to what he considered the broader "evils" of class inequality and "economic exploitation."  

Paul Louis Street is a writer, activist, teacher, and public speaker based in DeKalb, IL, and Iowa City, IA. His many publications include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004), and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005). He can be reached at: pstreet@niu.edu.


Other Recent Articles by Paul Street

* Selective War Photography: Worthy and Unworthy Victims
* Odious Obama's Path to Hell
* Empire, Inequality, and the Arrogance Of Power
* The “Realistic” Pessimism of the Do-Nothing Liberal-Left Intelligentsia
* “The Face of Sacrifice”: Another Example of the NY Times’ Service to Imperial Power
* Pentagon Puppets and Other Orwellian Horrors at USA Today
* Messianic Militarism Versus Democracy in Imperial America
* “Dishonest and Reprehensible”?
* The "Cowardice" Card: Militarism's Last and Self-Fulfilling Refuge
* Bill Clinton Was No Champion of the Poor
* Dominant Media and Damage Control in the Wake of a Not-So Natural Disaster
* The All-Too American Tragedy of New Orleans: Empire, Inequality, Race and Oil
* Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy & Racism Avoidance in and Around Chicago
* Bush, China, Two Deficits, and the Ongoing Decline of US Hegemony
* Watergate Was a Minor Crime
* The Nuclear Option” and the One Party State
* Terri Schiavo, 84,000 Black Men, and Dominant Media's Selective Morality
* “Because We Are America!”
* Martin Luther King. Jr. and “The Triple Evils That Are Interrelated”
* Love Motivates Us to Kill the Enemy
* Rumseld to Troops in Iraq: “Fight Naked...Life’s a Bitch and Then YOU Die”
* No Apology for Dissent: Truth and Cowardice
* Love, Hates, Kills, Dies
* Killing on Tape and the Broader War Criminality
* Dear Europe
* The United States: “As Menacing to Itself and the World As Ever”
* The Fabric of Deception and Liberal Complicity
* Campaign Reflections: Resentment Abhors a Vaccum
* The 9/11 Commission Report: Bush's Negligence Didn't Happen
* Notes on Race, Gender, and Mass Infantilization
* “A Descending Spiral Ending in Destruction for All-Too Many”
* Racist Democratic Empire and Atrocity Denial
* Kerry's Predictable Failure to Make Bush Pay for Rising US Poverty
* Thought Control, Costas, the Olympics and Imperial Occupations Past and Present
* JF Kerry: “I am Not a [Redistribution] Democrat”
* Stupid White Men and Why Segregation Matters
* The "Vile Maxim" Versus the Common Good: Different Approaches to November
* We Need a New Media Relationship
* “Failed States” at Home and Abroad
* Be “Part of Something”: Sign Up With The American Empire Project
* Congratulations, Mr. Bush: You Have Not Presided Over the Final Collapse of Capitalism
* "Slaves Had Jobs Too"
* Brown v. Board Fifty Years Out: Still Separate and Unequal
* Let Them Eat "Cakewalk"
* England, America, Empire, and Inequality
* Niall Ferguson Speaks on the Need for Imperial Ruthlessness
* Richard A. Clarke, Rwanda, and “Narcissistic Compassion”
* Honest Mistakes? The New York Times on "The Failure to Find Iraqi Weapons"
* Urban Race Relations: "Everything Changed" After 9/11?
* Forbidden Connections: Class, Cowardice, and War
* The "Repair" of "Broken Societies" Begins at Home
* Deep Poverty, Deep Deception: Facts That Matter Beneath The Imperial Helicopters