Monday, June 21, 2010

Is the Third Time a Charm for Walmart?

Posted By on 06.21.10 at 10:59 AM

Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale says it’s “very likely” his plan for a new Walmart in Pullman will come before the City Council's zoning committee this Thursday, and he says he’s optimistic he has the votes to advance it, partly because of a "community benefits agreement" that Walmart officials have put together to try to appease critics of the pay and benefits it offers workers.

But the agreement so far includes little beyond general promises Beale made to the Chicago Plan Commission when it approved the development in April.

Beale insists the company is strengthening its commitment to paying above-market wages. “This makes it more concrete,” Beale says. “It’s a legal document.”

I obtained a copy of the agreement last week; you can click here to see it:

CBA_June_18.pdf

It includes a lot of vague language, such as a pledge to “encourage” the site’s contractor to employ more minority-owned businesses than it has to legally. The agreement also states that Walmart will “recommend” that the general contractor work with unions to build the new store, and it says the big-box retailer “will work with local community groups and the mayor’s Office of Workforce Development to source candidates who are interested, qualified and eligible.”

Noticeably absent from the agreement is any mention of a “living wage” of $11.03, which some union-friendly aldermen have been demanding. The memo does include a “Wages & Benefits” section, but it only states that Walmart offers “competitive market salaries” and a “comprehensive benefits package” to its associates.

“This is a community benefits agreement,” Beale says. “This is not a union community benefits agreement.”

Beale says the Pullman agreement was compiled from similar documents that were created for the city's one existing Walmart, on the west side, and another proposed for Chatham. Beale says it also takes into account community feedback he received during 60 community meetings that were held to discuss the retailer's expansion into Pullman.

Among those whose input wasn’t included in the agreement is Rev. Booker Vance, who heads Good Jobs Chicago, a coalition of community groups that oppose Walmart. Vance previously told me that he tried meeting with Walmart reps earlier this month, but the retailer canceled the meeting due to “travel schedules.” He says me hasn’t met with them since.

“They’re trying to spend more money on advertising to give the impression they’re acting on good faith, and they’re not,” Vance says.

Beale says additional talks between Walmart reps and union leaders could help sway some aldermen to sign off on the Pullman Park plan. But that will only happen if there are more talks.

Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo told me company officials have made “no commitments” to sit down with union leaders. He says the retailer is focused on Thursday’s zoning committee meeting. And, like Beale, Restivo stresses that the community benefits agreement is a commitment to Pullman residents—not to unions.

“That document is a community benefits agreement for the community on the south side of Chicago. Period,” he told me.

Beale says he’ll take Walmart to court if they break any provision of the community benefits agreement.

He's been lobbying aldermen on the zoning committee to sign off on the store as part of Pullman Park, a mixed-use development that would include new housing and a community recreation center. The committee’s chairman, 25th Ward alderman Daniel Solis, has twice stalled a vote on the project, saying he’d like to give the retailer and unions more time to work out a deal. But unions have numerous allies on the committee, including powerful 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, and insiders have speculated that Beale doesn’t have enough votes to move his project forward.

Beale, though, says he’s feeling optimistic about the upcoming meeting.

“I think I’ve extended the olive branch to both sides,” he says. “I think we need to move forward and have this issue voted up or down in the City Council.”

UPDATE: Crain's is reporting that Walmart and an unspecified group of aldermen has reached a "deal" under which the company would get to open numerous stores in Chicago in return for donating $20 million to charities and paying workers at least $8.75 an hour. More to come as we get details.

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