Wheelers, Dealers, and Walmart | Bleader

Friday, June 25, 2010

Wheelers, Dealers, and Walmart

Posted By on 06.25.10 at 09:53 AM

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This week’s City Council zoning committee turned out to be a love fest among union leaders, Walmart, and the big-box retailer’s chief promoter in the council, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, who were all able to claim some sort of a victory after a “deal” was been reached on the Pullman Park development, a housing and retail project that includes the city’s second Walmart store.

Right before the zoning committee was set to approve the Walmart portion of the project, Beale and retiring Chicago Federation of Labor president Dennis Gannon could be seen hugging each other in the lounge behind council chambers as if they were longtime friends who'd just returned home from some epic adventure, like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker after blowing up the Death Star or Pee-wee Herman and his bicycle after escaping the Warner Brothers movie lot.

Just a few days ago, the union organization and Walmart’s allies in City Hall seemed to be at each other’s throats.

But why wouldn’t they be happy now? After they reached an agreement, Beale gets the grocery store his ward desperately needs, the unions get to save face in what was shaping up to be a humiliating defeat, Walmart gets to expand further into the city, and other aldermen are spared another heated showdown that could be politically dangerous as they prepare for elections next winter.

Still, as word spread throughout City Hall that Chicago's six-year Walmart stalemate was coming to an end, one group didn’t appear to be as thrilled as Gannon or Beale—the Ninth Ward residents who'd been working in conjunction with unions to oppose the retailer.

“I won’t be happy until there’s a living wage for the workers of Walmart and workers throughout Chicago,” said Tom Shepherd, who lives in the ward and heads the Pullman Business Association. Over the past few months, Shepherd worked alongside other Pullman residents, Good Jobs Chicago, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 to help organize events aimed at pressuring the big-box retailer Walmart into offering a wage of $11.03 an hour. “It doesn’t seem to me that [Walmart] gave away a whole lot.”

It’s not hard to see where Shepherd is coming from. Gannon told reporters there were three demands that led unions to sign off on the Pullman Walmart. The first was an “urban wage” that would be a dollar above the minimum wage, and Walmart did promise to increase its starting wage to $8.75 an hour, with employees eligible to get raises of 40 to 60 cents an hour after their first year. That theoretically meets Gannon’s “urban wage,” but there’s no guarantee of the second-year pay hikes.

“I don’t know of too many jobs that guarantee raises,” Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said after the zoning committee adjourned. Restivo also said the retailer already offers this kind of raise at its existing stores.

Gannon also told reporters that Walmart’s commitment to a "community benefits agreement" played a role in the union’s endorsement of the Pullman store. But the agreement offers nothing new, nor does it have any binding power.

“Any term or agreement in this document is subject and contingent upon business conditions that will continue to ensure a productive relationship with the City and its citizens,” states the agreement, which I obtained last week.

Beale and Restivo also made it pretty clear to me that they didn't see the community benefits agreement as a commitment to unions. "This is a community benefits agreement,” Beale told me. “This is not a union community benefits agreement.”

And Gannon told reporters that the deal was also contingent on guarantees that the store would be built with union labor. But Walmart and Beale had been promising that for weeks. Beale brought it up during his speech to the Chicago Plan Commission in April, and Restivo said Walmart had told union officials that it was willing to use union labor during a meeting held on May 3, right before the zoning committee was originally expected to take a vote on Pullman Park.

“I can’t go so far as to say that they caved," Shepherd said, "but I think that there are going to be a lot of people who are disappointed that it didn’t go a little bit farther.”

One of those people is Jeff Helgeson, a Pullman resident who teaches labor relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like Shepherd, Helgeson helped organize events for Ninth Ward residents who weren’t excited about Walmart moving into the neighborhood. Though he plans on moving to Texas to take a new teaching gig, he says he’s toying with the idea of creating a citywide, community-based coalition to oppose Walmart.

“There are neighborhoods across the city where people enjoy a diversity of shopping options,” he said. “You bring in something that tends to be a monopoly and it can change the landscape of Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

If Walmart has its way, Helgeson will have "several dozen" chances to test that coalition.

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