After two years of frequently acrimonious controversy, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, took the first tangible step toward establishing its first Chicago store. With balloons, a marching band and a cheerleading contingent consisting of politicians, local community leaders and Wal-Mart officials, the world’s largest retailer broke ground?”or more accurately, broke a wall?”on its first Chicago store.

As a wrecking ball tore into the brick faade of the old Unilever plant at Grand Avenue and Kilpatrick Street on Tuesday, the one person who had been at the center of that controversy, 37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts, was understandably elated. An ardent proponent of the store, Mitts has been out front arguing that such a store was an essential part of any economic recovery in her ward.

“Our constituents already shop at Wal-Mart,” Mitts argued. She said she’s tired of Westsiders traveling miles west on Roosevelt Road to Forest Park and on North Avenue to Northlake to shop at busy Wal-Marts there.

“That’s the bottom line. We can’t continue to see our tax dollars go out of our community,” Mitts said.

But while the majority of those present lauded the coming of badly needed jobs to the economically distressed area, not everyone present was in a celebratory mood. Members of the South Austin Coalition joined other groups to protest what they see as Wal-Mart’s continued resistance to agreeing to basic safeguards of the community’s interests.

SAC’s Elce Redmond referred to the pro-Wal-Mart group of politicians and clergy as “Amen corner.” Mitts, Redmond said, “isn’t a bad person, just uninformed.”

“Those guys are waving the white flag of surrender, allowing Wal-Mart to do whatever they want,” said Redmond.

However, Mitts said she felt strongly that there could be no negotiations regarding protecting worker’s rights until there was a store built.

“I’m working for the best interest of the community. There’s a need for a living wage,” she said, noting that in Chicago that wage is around $10.50 per hour. “But you can’t implement any of that until [Wal-Mart] is at the table. “I think, first, we need to get a building here.”

Wal-Mart, Redmond countered, simply wants to get its corporate foot in Chicago’s door.

“Once they’re in, they do whatever they want to do.” Redmond stressed that his group and others who’ve been critical of Wal-Mart are also working in the best interests of the community. He said his group is not opposed to Wal-Mart building stores in Chicago. But he insists the retailer must be partner to an agreement that protects the rights of people in the community. Among those bargaining points are an agreement to hire  neighborhood residents “at a living wage,” and with excellent health benefits, as well as assuring workers the right to unionize.

Wal-Mart, Redmond said, has proven repeatedly that they aren’t willing to negotiate regarding labor issues. He pointed to the closing of a Wal-Mart store in Canada by the corporation after workers there attempted to unionize.

“That doesn’t sound like a company willing to allow workers to unionize,” said Redmond.
The construction work on the store, which is expected to begin in April, is expected to produce between 100 and 200 jobs, according to Mitts. Once the store opens for business in April, 2006, she said, it is expected to employ between 250 and 300 people on a full- and part-time basis.