Wal-Mart gets one foot in the door

CHICAGO – Ignoring hundreds of protesters, the City Council voted May 26 to allow one Wal-Mart store to be built here. However, a proposal for a second store did not get approval at this time.

The vote was preceded by more than a year of debate as to whether Wal-Mart would be beneficial or detrimental to the impoverished North Austin area on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Earlier this year, it was disclosed that Wal-Mart had already quietly gotten authorization to build a second store, in the area of an abandoned steel mill on the South side.

Opponents of the Wal-Mart project included the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, which represents supermarket workers in the area. An anti-Wal-Mart coalition was built, including in its ranks the Chicago Federation of Labor, ACORN, Jobs with Justice, Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, and many other groups.

Wal-Mart claimed that the two stores would bring jobs into economically depressed inner city neighborhoods. But a study carried out by the Center for Urban Economic Development of the University of Illinois in Chicago reveals that the West Side project would actually cost the area about 65 jobs. This is because the competition by Wal-Mart will cause the closing or retrenchment of other retail trade establishments in the area. Wal-Mart works its sales personnel at a 51 percent higher productivity rate, so workers laid off in other stores can be replaced by a smaller number of Wal-Mart employees. This study and the testimony of many other experts, including Wal-Mart employees, clearly illustrated the down side of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart opponents saturated the City Council and the press with information about Wal-Mart’s anti-labor policies, which cost the public money because employees are compensated so badly that they have to rely on public health and social services to survive.

Wal-Mart’s strategy, made possible by its deep pockets, was to inundate the area with misinformation. Wal-Mart contributed money to community organizations and bought ads in local media. The University of Illinois study was completely ignored by the Chicago area media, which simply parroted the line, over and over, that Wal-Mart would bring jobs. Both liberal and conservative columnists in the city’s press got into the act, ferociously attacking the UFCW and other Wal-Mart opponents. Right-wing columnists accused the anti-Wal-Mart forces of being opposed to free enterprise, while liberal commentators accused Wal-Mart opponents of racism for denying unemployed African American youth the opportunity to work at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart refused to sign an agreement with community and labor groups that would have committed it to hiring neighborhood people, including ex-convicts. Yet some of the commentators told the public that Wal-Mart had agreed to do these things.

In the end, the vote was 32 to 15 to approve the West Side project. However, the South side project failed to get the 26 votes needed to pass, and will be sent back to the City Council Zoning Committee.

Several of the aldermen who voted in favor of one or both projects denounced Wal-Mart’s labor practices but explained that they did not want to thwart the wishes of the two City Council members in whose wards the stores will be built. Unstated was the fear that these aldermen would later sabotage some of the pet projects of those who voted “no.” The fact that Mayor Richard Daley, whose brother does legal work for Wal-Mart, was pushing hard for the project makes it surprising that so many voted against it.

Wal-Mart says it will keep trying to get the South side store approved, and the anti-Wal-Mart coalition says it will try to stop it, as well as continuing efforts to unionize the giant chain.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org