Friday, July 24, 2009

The next big box war . . . and peace

Posted By on 07.24.09 at 10:00 AM

Wal-Mart and its chief City Council booster, 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr., are reviving their six-year campaign to open a store on a south-side property that was once home to a Ryerson Steel plant.
This time it looks like they’re going to get their store, and they probably won’t need to wage a major battle to do it.

Mayor Daley said earlier this week that he didn’t think the City Council was ready to support another Wal-Mart, but Brookins believes the crummy economy—and perhaps some of the company’s efforts to improve its image—have changed the political equation since the big box battles of 2005 and 2006.

“Many of our neighborhoods are suffering in well documented food deserts and increasing violence, yet we are slamming our doors to the one food retailer who is ready, willing and able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our poorest neighborhoods without asking for any financial incentives?” he wrote earlier this week in the Huffington Post. “I encourage and implore each and every member of City Council to ignore the threats from the unions and listen to their heart and the voices of my constituents.”

The irony is that if Brookins gets his wish, it will likely be the result of a successful union campaign. As one top labor leader tells me, unions have little interest in waging another Wal-Mart opposition battle. For one thing, lots of their members actually want Wal-Marts in the city. For another, they’re already fighting over the city and state budgets.

And since Democrats took over the White House and both chambers of Congress, organized labor across the country has its eyes on another prize: the federal Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it far easier for them to organize at places like big box retailers. Despite vehement opposition from business groups, a compromise version of EFCA appears to be moving forward in Washington.

“Wal-Mart can come into the city if they like,” the labor leader said to me. “And when we get EFCA, we’ll organize them.”

Plus, Brookins isn’t the only alderman who’s got old industrial land he’d like to do something with. The Ninth Ward’s Anthony Beale has been working to put together a huge new development at the former site of another Ryerson facility. Plans for the project, at 111th Street off the Bishop Ford Expressway, include hundreds of new homes, a sports and recreation center created out of the last industrial building on the property, and retail anchored by a big box.

Beale has flirted with Wal-Mart for years and once even announced that they would be opening a store at the Ryerson site by 2008. He subsequently backed away from that promise but has been in periodic talks with the company since, especially since interest from IKEA and other retailers never yielded a deal.

Beale has long insisted that Wal-Mart would have to offer "livable" wages and benefits before getting his support, though he’s also been careful not to define those things too precisely. Now he sounds like he’s ready to work something out. “Based on my conversations with Wal-Mart, I sense they’re very willing to make sure they’re paying a livable wage,” he told me. He said he’s working on a “community agreement” that would satisfy the company as well as organized labor.

“But if cooler heads can’t see eye to eye we’ll have to do what’s best for the community,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a huge recession and we need jobs, but they have to pay.”

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