Residents, business owners and community leaders from the West Side, where Chicago’s first Wal-Mart is scheduled to open this summer, spoke out Thursday against the so-called “Big Box Retail” ordinance currently before the City Council’s finance committee.
The proposed ordinance would mandate retailers occupying at least 75,000 square feet and grossing $1 billion or more in annual revenues to pay all employees $10 per hour, plus $3 per hour in benefits, if they work at least five hours per week.
The current version of the ordinance, introduced in March by Ald. Joe Moore (49th), would apply to new and existing stores. It would reportedly impact at least 35 stores currently operating in Chicago, and not just large discount chains like Target and Wal-Mart, but also stores like Nike Town on North Michigan Avenue.
“I believe it’s important that we set a floor beneath which no one can drop,” said Moore. “Everyone deserves to be paid a decent wage and benefits that are sufficient to support themselves and their families, and keep them out of poverty.”
Two years ago, the council granted zoning approval for Wal-Mart to open a store in Austin, but passage of Moore’s ordinance, some claim, would halt the development if the company refuses to pay the higher wage. Mitts said the council should honor the wishes of the 37th Ward.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to just target Wal-Mart,” she said “Don’t support me on one end and then turn around and back-door me on the other end.
“That’s not right, and they can’t really tell me why they’re doing that,” Mitts said of her colleagues supporting the ordinance.
Residents in the 37th Ward, who would be likely candidates for jobs at the Wal-Mart when it opens in Austin, said the $10 minimum wage would deter businesses from investing in their neighborhood.
“The communities, especially on the West Side of Chicago, are excited about opportunities for jobs,” said Frankie Freenie of the Nobel Neighbors Association in Humboldt Park. “We need jobs. Our communities are filled with the young and the old standing on corners with nothing to do, some laid off from companies that have closed down or moved away, [and] some ex-offenders looking for a new start.”
But Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th), who is one of the 32 co-sponsors of Moore’s ordinance, argued that the ordinance is not aimed at all large retailers, but is intended to keep just one big box ?” Wal-Mart ?” out of Chicago.
“This is not the big box ordinance. This is the Wal-Mart ordinance,” he said. “Big boxes have been around for a long time, and nobody brought an ordinance.”
Moore also disagreed with claims that setting a minimum wage would take away jobs.
“That’s the same old chestnut they drag out every time there’s any legislation that tries to give people decent wages and benefits, and history has borne out that these arguments just don’t fly,” he said.
Moore offered Santa Fe and San Francisco, both of which set minimum wages for big box retailers, as examples. Wal-Mart built a second store in Santa Fe after the minimum wage was instituted, he said.
Moore also said increasing wages for the thousands of Chicagoans employed by large retailers would boost the local economy.
“It puts more money in people’s pockets, it gives them more disposable income, and it gives them more of an opportunity to spend money on goods and services,” he said.
But opponents of the ordinance said it would move West Side communities backward instead of forward.
“I would love to see everyone in my community get an increase, but the truth of the matter is, that’s unrealistic,” said Rev. Joseph Kyles of the 37th Ward Ministerial Association. “For the first time in our neighborhood; we have pastors, business organizations and political leadership all working together to bring economic development and jobs to our neighborhood.”
Some suggested working toward an increase in the minimum wage for all workers – not just those employed by large retail stores.
“Although we understand the issue of livable wages, the big box ordinance does not solve this issue,” said Camille Lilly, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “Livable wages are an issue of state and federal government, not just the city of Chicago. The city cannot do it alone.”