Exposing the myths: Why Wal-Mart can pay a living wage

Chicago made national news the last week in July when it became the largest city in the country to set minimum wage and benefit standards for retail workers. The City Council voted 35-14 in favor of an ordinance requiring “big box” stores like Wal-Mart and Target to start wages at $9.25 an hour in 2007 and increase the minimum to $10 an hour by 2010, with cost of living increases thereafter. An additional $3 an hour must be devoted to workers’ health care. This affects only the giant stores with 90,000 square feet or at least $1 billion in sales. The fight for a living wage, up to and beyond the historic vote, continues with big business, Wal-Mart and the mayor working furiously to overturn it. Many lies and myths have been perpetrated about the wage law. Principal sponsors Alderman Freddrenna Lyle, from the 6th Ward, responded to many of these myths in her speech from the floor of the City Council, as did Alderman Joe Moore from the 49th Ward. The following are abridgments of their speeches.

Myth No. 1: The ordinance is racist, because it got introduced just when Wal-Mart was coming into the city.

I wondered when and who would first play the race card and the winner is the Wal-Mart supporters. Wal-Mart avoided the cities for years, as a purposeful strategy, preferring instead to locate in rural and suburban America. They saturated those areas until there was no more room for growth. In order to keep their stock prices up, they have to continue to grow.

In 2005 they announced plans to open 600 new stores. Well, they can’t go to the moon yet, so they have to enter the urban markets. Their growth policies require that they now move into urban America where most Blacks live. They picked the time and place for this battle, not us.

I think it’s racist that they only trotted out African American ministers to castigate, threaten and berate the African American elected officials. Aren’t there white aldermen that are voting for the ordinance?

I say it is both racist and ridiculous to argue that Black people in Chicago should work for less than their counterparts in Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco [where living wage laws have been passed].

Myth No. 2: Any African American alderman who supports the ordinance is a stooge or puppet of the unions.

It is incredibly offensive to assume that African American alderman are unable to comprehend lofty issues such as social and economic justice, independent of some white folks telling them what to think.

Maybe those of us who are voting for the ordinance are stooges of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King died in Memphis, Tenn., fighting for a living wage for the sanitation workers. In his last speech he said, “The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be sanitation workers.”

He went on to say to the preachers, it’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.

Myth No. 3: The unions have threatened aldermen and that’s why we are going along with this “horrible, horrible” ordinance.

Not one single, solitary person from organized labor called, e-mailed or otherwise communicated any threats to me at anytime. In fact, any persons, entities, individuals who have threatened me were Black businesspersons and Black ministers. Now besides something being inherently wrong with that picture, it was ironic to see those very same people standing on television and hear them on radio vowing to protect us from the threats of others.

After I got mad, I thought of what Marcus Garvey said, “Men who are in earnest are not afraid of consequences,” and to my opponents, I want them to know, that I am not afraid.

On behalf of the people that brought you the weekend, organized labor, I want to say yes the labor unions have issues. Yes, the face of labor in this city is mostly white male. But so is the face of commerce. There are practices in labor and trade unions that are discriminatory and serve as barriers to employment for people of color. And we are going to work on those practices and identify those racist people in those unions. But in every other area of life, in polities, in journalism, the church, and in educational institutions, there are problems. Every single one of those institutions has problems and the unions are no different.

But for organized labor, there would be no pension plans, and health benefits and the seniors in my community would no longer be able to afford to live in their homes in middle class lifestyles, because they retired from jobs that gave them union benefits. Union activism and practices allowed many, many people of color to move out of poverty into the middle class. No single institution has had that empowering impact on the African American community, except for organized labor.

I won’t kick labor to the curb in exchange for some neo-liberalist philosophy that says government exists only for the protection of property and profits. Because I am clear, that in this country, power emanates ground up from the people, not down, from the ultra-rich.

Myth No. 4: All of the businesses will close down and no new businesses will come into the wastelands that are the inner city.

There is more than $1 billion in income sitting on the south and west sides of Chicago, waiting for someone to come in and claim it. Target’s already here getting the money. Are they going to give up that money? Not hardly. Are their competitors going to stand by and just watch them roll wheelbarrows full of money to the bank? Not hardly.

Business has cried wolf at every single social advance. Going back to England in 1789 was the beginning of an anti-business debate. It was about ending slavery. One who argued against the abolition of slavery said, “If abolition became law, all sensible merchants would go to France.” So they’ve been talking about something bad happening whenever there has been a movement to empower people.

Society pays a high price for those cheap prices. Two years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said “It’s Kool-Aid and cyanide. The Kool-Aid is the cheap prices. The cyanide is the cheap wages.”

People will do anything when they are hungry enough. People will eat dog food if they are hungry enough, but I am not going to vote that we put it on the daily recommended diet for poor people.

The world’s biggest company, Wal-Mart, is making $11 billion in profits, yet sees no shame that 46 percent of their employees’ children are on Medicaid. CEOs make $8-9 million in salary yet see no irony that they provide only 77 cents an hour per employee on health insurance.

I don’t think I can afford to or should be asked to subsidize the Walton family. They’ve got it, I don’t. They can afford to pay their employees a living wage. They can afford to provide health insurance to their employees. With $11 billion, they can do better but they won’t. And not one single opponent of the ordinance has come up to me and been able to answer why. Why won’t they? They won’t because they are the 500-pound gorilla and they don’t have to.

They would rather spend millions of dollars underwriting campaigns to divide communities rather than agree to increase their wage or benefit package. And divide the community, it has. Some of those businesspersons on the other side have been friends of mine longer than they have done business with Wal-Mart, and I applaud their success. Black elected officials generally are the strongest advocates for Black businesspeople. We would never do anything that hurt Black businesses and are proud of those businesses. But I must speak for those who are less fortunate who have to take those jobs because there’s nothing else around.

This wedge that has been driven through the heart of my community is temporary; our destinies are entwined, and the continued fight for racial, social and economic justice will soon reunite us against our common foes.

I am a strong supporter of this ordinance because I do not believe that as a nation, we should continue encouraging a system with a class of ultra-rich and dirt poor, because traditionally Black folks always end up dirt poor.

–Freddrenna Lyle

Our job is not to safeguard corporate profit

In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This landmark legislation outlawed child labor, mandated a 40-hour workweek and established our nation’s first minimum wage, set at 40 cents an hour. In urging passage of this legislation, FDR declared, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean wages of a decent living.”

Those words ring just as true now as they did 68 years ago.

FDR faced a firestorm of protest.

Following the lead of their industry forefathers, the industry titans of today — the large big box retail giants, their hired spokespeople and their cheerleaders on the newspaper editorial boards — regurgitate the same tired old arguments that were levied against the first minimum wage nearly three and a half generations ago.

They were wrong then. They are wrong now.

Tragically, our federal government has not increased the minimum wage in nearly 10 years. Some states, like Illinois, have stepped in to fill the void and raised their minimum wage above the federal level. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, total employment in the states with a higher minimum wage increased by 6.2 percent, 50 percent greater than the combined job growth of 4.1 percent for states where the federal minimum wage prevailed. Retail employment grew by 6.1 percent in the states with higher minimum wages versus 1.9 percent in other states.

Why is that? The answer is simple. When working men and women get a raise they spend that money on goods and services.

I welcome these stores to our communities. Our people need the retail amenities they offer. They need the jobs. But contribute to our neighborhoods, don’t pillage them.

What about all those thousands of people lining up for jobs at Wal-Mart in Evergreen Park and on the West Side. Doesn’t that mean people want those jobs and are willing to work for $7 or $7.25 an hour? Of course, people are desperate for work. That people are desperate for a job, any job, only underscores the need for this ordinance.

Seventy years ago, thousands of people would stand in line at factories, packing houses and coal mines to work 60 hours a week in life-threatening conditions for pennies an hour. Did that mean we should not have mandated a 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage? Did that mean we should not have required worker safety measures and outlawed child labor? Of course not. President Roosevelt understood a basic economic fact: Corporations are in business to maximize their profits and they will pay workers whatever the market will bear. He also understood that government is in place to serve the common good, and at times government must step in to control the excesses of the market place to protect the public welfare.

And that is what we are called upon to do here. Our job in this Council is not to safeguard the billion dollar profits of the world’s largest corporations. Our job is to safeguard the interests of our constituents, the working men and women of this great city, who are desperately trying to make ends meet.

–Joe Moore