Tuesday, June 1, 2010

As City Council Vote Approaches, Walmart and Unions Still Haven't Met

Posted By on 06.01.10 at 06:43 PM

The countdown to another Walmart showdown in the City Council is under way.

The council’s Committee on Zoning is scheduled Thursday to take up the Pullman Park development project, which has generated a lot of controversy because it includes what would be the city’s second Walmart store. The committee was originally expected to vote on the far south side development last month, but chairman Daniel Solis, the 25th Ward alderman, held off on a vote, saying he wanted to give representatives from Walmart and labor unions more time to hash out some sort of agreement on wages and benefits.

But Walmart officials canceled a meeting scheduled for today because of their "travel schedules," and a company spokesman says there are no plans to sit down with unions before Thursday. "We’re open to a continued dialogue when circumstances merit it," Steven Restivo told me.

Solis’s stall tactic was intended to take the City Council off the hot seat. Some aldermen aren’t exactly thrilled about having to vote on Walmart with municipal elections less than a year away, and Solis’s plan gave them some hope that the big-box retailer and unions could forge a compromise.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to get involved with this,” says Ed Smith, the 28th Ward alderman. Smith, who sits on the zoning committee, says he’s not sure how he’ll vote on Thursday, but thinks that most aldermen will side with unions unless Walmart makes a concession on wages.

That's not likely. Restivo said Walmart believes it already offers a good wage.

None of this is likely to go over well with aldermen already under pressure from unions and Walmart critics. Even before the meeting cancellation, some union leaders and City Hall insiders were predicting that the Pullman project wouldn't win enough votes to pass the zoning committee.

Rev. Booker Vance, chairman of Good Jobs Chicago, which opposes the new Walmart store, was among those planning to meet with Walmart officials today. He said he learned on Friday that the meeting had been scrubbed.

Nick Kaleba, a spokesman for the Chicago Federation of Labor, said Walmart hasn't made time to sit down with union leaders since last month.

There's always a chance that Walmart's allies at City Hall, starting with the mayor, will prevent a vote on the Pullman Park project if they don't have winning numbers. Stephen Stults, a legislative assistant to Solis, said the alderman is currently expecting to go forward with Thursday’s zoning committee meeting.

“There may or may not be a decision to defer again,” Stults told me. “It’s up to the members of the committee.”

Meanwhile, a group of Pullman residents hopes to meet Tuesday evening with the project’s chief promoter in the City Council, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale. But that might also not happen, as Beale’s ward office says the alderman only accepts “walk-in” visits on Monday.

In 2004 the City Council gave Walmart the green light to open its first Chicago store on the West Side, but aldermen also passed the so-called “living wage” ordinance, which would have required big-box retailers to pay at least $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits. Mayor Daley ended up vetoing the living wage ordinance, and aldermen couldn’t get enough votes to override it. That set off a backlash from unions, who funneled money and resources to sympathetic candidates during the 2007 City Council elections.

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