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(DV) Street: Daley's Big-Box Veto and Urban Neoliberal Racism







Daley’s Big-Box Veto and Urban Neoliberal Racism
by Paul Street
September 19, 2006

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“Mayor Soul Man” and “Mayor Big Business”  

It’s just too perfectly awful.  For the first time in his seventeen years as the Mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley has found it necessary to veto an ordinance by his normally obedient City Council. The measure he has successfully moved to stamp out was widely supported by rank and file citizens, community-based organizations, and labor unions in his city’s black, Latino, and working-class wards.  


Originally passed by the council under pressure from a remarkable grassroots campaign, the measure would have required giant retail corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes, and Home Depot to pay workers in the city a modest minimum wage of ten dollars an hour by 2010. According to a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, 84 percent of the city’s residents and 90 percent of its black residents supported the “big box” Living Wage bill.


The ordinance led Wal-Mart and Target to announce that they were putting a number of “big box” retail developments in Chicago on hold. They have launched a preemptive capital strike, threatening to disinvest in the city unless and until the popular ordinance was shelved and a “favorable business climate” restored in the City of Big Shoulders.  
In killing the minimally decent “big box” bill, Daley made a special point of wrapping his action in the purported flag of racial justice.  He claims that his veto is necessary to permit the flowering of economic vitality in the city’s abandoned black ghetto neighborhoods, where jobs, banks, and mass retail shopping opportunities are notoriously scarce.  He defended his action at a South Side gathering attended by a crowd of handpicked black supporters who cheered as he accused the ordinance’s proponents of opposing “economic development” in the city’s most disadvantaged communities.   
This performance has earned him ironic praise from Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who notes that “Mayor Daley is a brilliant politician. Who else but Daley,” asks Kass, “facing his toughest re-election fight from a credible black challenger, could play both the race card and the free market card and get away with it? He was Mayor Soul Man and Mayor Big Business on the same day.” (John Kass, “Daley Shows He Still Holds All the Cards,” Chicago Tribune, 14 September, 2006) 
“A Fight Wal-Mart Needed to Win” 

Kass’s sense of irony is not shared by the Tribune’s reactionary editorial board. The paper has applauded the veto as a statement that “ Chicago is still open for business, that it is hungry for development and job for its citizens.”   
A “news” item in its business section last Thursday informs readers that “it was a fight that Wal-Mart needed to win. Under pressure to show continuous growth and stumbling in international markets,” Tribune staff reporter Sandra Jones claims, “the world’s largest retailer is attempting to win entry into cities like Chicago. Until [Daley’s veto], it had little to show for its effort. With Mayor Daley’s successful veto of a higher minimum wage ordinance for big-box retailers, the way is paved for Wal-Mart’s expansion to the city.” As Jones further explained, “Chicago is a critical testing ground for the Arkansas-based discount chain as it attempts to expand from its rural roots into the densely populated cities of the North.”
The Tribune did not elucidate on how having to pay a $10 minimum wage would necessarily prevent Wal-Mart from entering the lucrative Chicago market. It did not give details on why pressure to enter densely populated northern areas might not be an incentive to work cooperatively with local populations and activists who have reasonable concerns about the employment practices and economic, social, and political impact of large-scale, low-wage corporate retailing and the low-road model of corporate globalization that Wal-Mart reflects and advances.   
Like the city’s other corporate newspaper the Sun Times, the Tribune has been describing the popular ordinance as a “bad idea” that would create huge job losses for the city. The mere citizenry of the city were fools, both papers believe, to support the “anti-development” big-box bill. 
Divide and Rule 

Daley's decision to play the race card (disingenuous for reasons I will discuss below) was straight out of Wal-Mart’s three-year campaign to crack the Chicago market. Wal-Mart, a notoriously labor-exploiting, and race-and gender-discriminating template of low-road capitalism, has been trying for at least two years to “crack” the rich Chicago market through what it sees as the city’s weakest link -- the impoverished black inner city.  The company has been posing as a concerned corporate citizen motivated by a benevolent passion to solve the problems of the forsaken ghetto.  
The company and its allies in the Illinois Retail Merchants Association have gone on black radio to trumpet this line. They have pursued and won statements of support from captive black corporate and City Hall toadies like Leon Finney (of The Woodlawn Organization) and James Compton, the malingering millionaire ex-CEO of the Chicago Urban League. They have recruited the president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to trumpet Wal-Mart et al.’s recently discovered zeal for “economic development in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods." 
Half a Small Basic Family Budget is Just Too Much for “The World's Largest Retailer”
It’s no stretch to say that the big-box bill is  “modest” and “minimally decent.” According to a rigorous study by the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of a  “basic family budget” -- the real no-frills cost of living (taking into account housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, and other necessities and taxes) -- for even a small family of one parent and two children in Chicago in 1999 was $35,307 (Jared Bernstein et al., Hardships in America (Economic Policy Institute, 2001).  
Think about what Daley and his corporate sponsors are saying about the capacity of corporation capitalism to deliver the goods to working people. The minimum wage that would have been set by the freshly murdered ordinance would have required “the world’s largest retailer” and friends to pay their lowest-paid workers no less than $20,000 four years from now, when the minimum basic family budget for a mom and two kids in the city will certainly -- particularly when you factor in the ever rising disappearance of affordable housing in Daley’s ever more gentrified, developer-friendly “global” metropolis -- cost more than $40,000 a year The measure that Daley felt compelled to slay WOULD HAVE SET THE FLOOR OF FULL-TIME WAL-MART WAGES AT HALF THE COST OF BEING A POOR SINGLE MOTHER WITH TWO CHILDREN in the city.  
Down the Memory Hole With “Democrat” Daley's Record of Ghetto Neglect 
The mayor’s racial rhetoric is rich with Orwellian irony. Who after all has been running the metropolis during the last two decades of ghetto abandonment that Daley now claims to loathe? A longstanding champion of big white-run business, Daley’s corporate-neoliberal reign of “pinstripe patronage” has more than accidentally coincided with persistent and deepening black misery in and around the city. Dominant local media’s mainly laudatory appraisal of the Mayor over the years (recently tempered by a series of classic Chicago hiring and corruption scandals) has consistently ignored the steep racial oppression and inequity experienced by hundreds of thousands of black Chicagoans living on the outskirts and in the shadows of Daley’s “beautified,” “vibrant,” and expensive downtown business, commercial, and residential district and its growing ring of glittering condominium and entertainment complexes. Endemic deep poverty across the city’s vast stretch of highly segregated and conspicuously non-beautified black neighborhoods has never struck the city’s wealthy or their deep pockets  mayor as a “big ticket” item requiring concentrated private or public investment.  
The $475 million that Daley got the city’s rich and powerful to spend on the city’s spectacular new Millennium Park would have been more than welcome in those communities. It would be especially appreciated in the form(s) of job training and/or child welfare and/or after school programs and/or “green space” expansion and/or drug treatment and/or … fill in the blank. The list of unmet neighborhood requirements goes on and on. It includes a crying need for affordable housing in the face of the mayor’s dedication to the gentrification of centrally located neighborhoods that are cleared and reserved for affluent urban professionals deemed vital for the city’s cherished ascendancy to “global” status.  
Respectable local and national commentary on “the city that works” routinely ignores the curious fact that social and economic inequality has deepened between Chicago’s black and white neighborhoods since Daley II’s ascendancy in 1989. That rising inequality has been fed by the mayor’s corporate, downtown-centered and globalist “growth machine,” which has pushed many of the city’s numerous black poor further and further to the urban and suburban margins of the new global metropolis and funneled the lion’s share of economic development funding to richer and whiter parts of town that need it least.  
"He Talked to Middle America" 
Chicagoans who paid attention got a taste of the depth and degree of Daley’s disdain for the city’s many black poor when he joined his “good friend” George W. Bush on an imperial helicopter flight that passed over some of the city’s ghetto communities on the way to address the rich, corporate, and extremely white “Chicago Economic Club” at the Sheritan Chicago Hotel and Towers in January of 2003.  The purpose of Bush’s visit was to sell his call for the elimination of taxes on American corporate dividends -- a measure that was designed to “cost the government $300 billion over ten years” and “create much bigger budget deficits for the future. More than half the benefit of eliminating dividend taxes,” the New York Times reported at the time, “would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers.”  Bush also used his trip to Chicago to call for the acceleration of preexisting steep income tax cuts and the repeal of the estate tax, which meaningfully affects only a tiny and super-privileged and very disproportionately white segment of the population.   
Bush accused those who opposed his profoundly regressive tax “stimulus” plan of engaging in “class warfare.” Yet his package was designed to increase the already formidable accumulation of private wealth in disproportionately white zones of hyper affluence like Chicago’s North Side Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and suburban Lake Forest while further bankrupting already inadequate social programs serving devastated black Chicago neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Grand Boulevard, where  corporate stock ownership and high incomes were too rare for many residents to applaud the plutocratic president’s tirade against the “double taxation” of corporate dividends.  
After soaring over West Side ghetto communities in a thunderous phalanx of armored military helicopters with the president on the way from O’Hare to the Sheritan Chicago and listening to the president’s disgraceful “middle-class tax-cut” pitch, the “Democratic” Mayor told reporters that Bush “hit a home run in that he talked to middle America.  I don’t think it was good versus evil,” Daley said, or “‘rich versus poor.’”  
Daley’s concept of “middle America” left out much of his own city, including fifteen predominantly nonwhite community areas, very disproportionately black, where more than a quarter of the children were living at less than half the poverty level in 1999.   
Corporate Deletions and Blackmail  
In Tribune and Sun Times editorials applauding the mayor’s gallant action to “save jobs,” there is no mention of the University of Illinois at Chicago ’s Center for Urban Economic Development’s determination that Wal-Mart will displace more merchandising jobs than it creates in the city.  There is no mention of the money that will be sucked out of the metropolis by large corporate chains that do not invest or save primarily in Chicago. There is no mention of Wal-Mart’s long record of violating civil rights, labor, and equal opportunity employment laws or of the large number of Wal-Mart “team members” (workers) compelled to supplement inadequate wages and benefit packages with reliance on public assistance. There is nothing about the terrible impact of its global purchasing practices on U.S. manufacturing employment or about the millions of public dollars that Wal-Mart and other large retailers extort from local and state government in the form of subsidies and tax breaks.  
There’s nothing about the company’s record of refusing to hire ex-offenders -- a major concern in a city where at least 40 percent of black male adults carry the crippling mark of a criminal record. There’s nothing about the humble and (for employers) eminently affordable level of the wage and benefit levels the big box ordinance would have mandated for large retailers’ lowest-paid employees.  
Like the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the craven corporate Chicago Urban League, the papers’ editors simply repeat as self-evident truth the big low-road retailers’ insistence that they simply can’t afford to pay entry-level workers wages equal to half the cost of a small family’s basic budget. They ignore the NYU Brennan Center for Justice’s judgment that Wal-Mart’s pressing need to enter new urban markets would have compelled it to work within the minimally decent wage standards set by the law. They doctrinally refuse to acknowledge that the big-box ordinance proponents are not anti-development but advocate a positive, alternative, and “high-road” pattern of metropolitan development that seeks to move wages closer to the real cost of living for ordinary working people.        
Welcome to the world of metropolitan neoliberal racism, where the regressive workings of the supposed “free market” -- really the machinations of the market and state’s creature and master The Corporation -- are falsely sold as the solution of capitalism’s most truly disadvantaged inner city victims and where filthy-rich, limousine-riding “civil rights” leaders play ball with the objectively racist Mayor in handing the keys to the city to ruthless and concentrated economic power.

Paul Street was the Director of Research at the Chicago Urban League between 2000 and 2005.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street will deliver the Pierre de Vise “Future of Chicago” Lecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago (Burnham Hall, room 309) on Wednesday, September 27, 2006 between 12 and 1250 P.M. Street’s next book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History is forthcoming next year.


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