By MEGHAN STREIT AND ALAN SUDERMAN, Medill News Service
Chicago’s first Wal-Mart is scheduled to open in Austin this September, but the company’s management still doesn’t know what wages it will be paying its approximately 400 employees.
It could be its standard wage, typically starting at $7.25 an hour with no benefits for many entry-level jobs. Or, if the City Council passes the so-called big box/living wage ordinance at this week’s meeting, Wal-Mart could be forced to pay its employees no less than $10 an hour plus benefits.
But regardless of the wages it has to pay, Wal-Mart is coming.
“We have a huge investment here with our store,” said John Bisio, a Wal-Mart corporate spokesman. “Naturally we want to make a go of it.”
So if Wal-Mart is willing to pay the higher wage, then why are opponents, some are asking, so objecting to the ordinance, including Ald. Emma Mitts (37th).
“I don’t know ?” other than Wal-Mart put her up to it,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose version of the big box/living wage ordinance passed through the council’s finance committee.
Mitts and West Side community leaders, however, say that the area desperately needs jobs, and imposing a living wage on large retailers, they insist, will drive jobs away from the city and prevent economic development on the West Side.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities in [my] ward,” Mitts said. “A lot of companies have left…we have to create opportunities for [West Side workers].”
As proof, Mitts offered the fact that more than 9,000 people have already applied for jobs at the new Wal-Mart.
Next week the council is expected to vote on the ordinance. If it passes, it will apply only to businesses that operate stores within city limits that are larger than 90,000 square feet and have more than $1 billion a year in profits.
Mitts, though, has a powerful ally at City Hall in Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“All your big boxes are going to suburban areas,” said Daley at a news conference in April. “At 95th [Street] and Western Avenue, stand there and watch all of the Chicagoans driving out going to Wal-Mart.”
But many economists say Mitts’ and Daley’s fears are unwarranted. They say retail giants are eager to open new stores in large urban cities.
“They’ve saturated everywhere else,” said Dr. Ron Bailin of Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning in Chicago, “This is the last frontier.”
Moore points to Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco as examples of two cities that have successfully passed living wage laws without deterring retail giants like Wal-Mart from expanding in those markets.
In San Francisco, Board of Supervisors member Sophie Maxwell said the city’s voter-approved minimum wage ordinance, in place since 2003, has not caused widespread discontent among the business community.
“If you’re a business, you look at what you need to do and you do it,” Maxwell said.
The law mandated that businesses with 10 or more employees pay a minimum of $8.52 an hour, as opposed to the federal minimum wage of $5.15.
Wal-Mart opened a second store in Santa Fe, even after the city mandated companies with 25 or more employees to pay a living wage in 2003. The current living wage is $9.50 an hour.
But Bisio said the Santa Fe and San Francisco ordinances apply to almost all businesses in the respective cities. The ordinances, he said, can’t be used as indicators of the effect Chicago’s proposed ordinance would have. “It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison,” Bisio said.
Mitts said she believes Chicago workers deserve higher wages but does not want to see large retailers unfairly targeted.
“We can’t compare Chicago with San Francisco and Santa Fe,” Mitts said. “I don’t think they had a mandate there as extreme as they have here.”
West Sider Shirley Henderson, 65, said her goal in applying to Wal-Mart was to earn some extra cash to help make ends meet. The retired factory worker ?” if the ordinance fails to win approval ?” will soon be working for $7 an hour as a greeter at the new Wal-Mart.
“This is a blessing for someone like me,” Henderson said. “It’s almost impossible to find a job.”