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37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts is striking back at her critics and those supporting the proposed City Council “Big Box” ordinance.

The council will vote on the ordinance July 26. If approved, it would mandate a “living wage” of $10 an hour, plus $3 in benefits for employees of larger retailers with 90,000 square feet of store space and more than $1 billion in annual profits. Mitts is more than just a little suspicious of the ordinance, introduced earlier this year while the city’s first Wal-Mart was being built in Austin. Retailers would have to implement the wage changes by July of 2010 if the ordinance becomes law.

Mitts called the “Big Box” ordinance, among other things, unfair and unconstitutional. At a recent community meeting in Austin, Mitts took several verbal swipes at unions, who have thrown their support behind the ordinance.

Austin’s Wal-Mart, currently being built at 4650 W. North Ave., and set for a September opening, covers 145,000 square feet of space. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has annual profits of more than $10 billion. Wal-Mart stores typically offer around $7 an hour in wages.

Mitts said if Wal-Mart is forced to pay a “living wage” to its employees, it could mean fewer jobs for workers, including those in Austin.

“Those are jobs that we’re going to be losing,” said Mitts, who fought hard two and half years ago to bring Wal-Mart into Austin. The Chicago City Council, already known for its legendary “wars,” approved the West Side Wal-Mart after a contentious and raucous round of City Council meetings in the spring of 2004. The council granted zoning approval for the Austin store over a South Side location.

That’s when the retaliation campaign, Mitts suspects, began against her.

She said her office has received threats from unknown individuals. Mitts also claims that the unions have candidates lined up to run against her and any other alderman who votes against “Big Box.” Union officials have denied such allegations. But Mitts believes the unions, critical of Wal-Mart’s low wages for years, have been angry ever since she helped bring Wal-Mart into Chicago.

“I’m already a target for bringing in Wal-Mart, so I might as well keep doing the right thing,” she said.

The ordinance, Mitts said, introduced by Ald. Joe Moore (49th), would force local governments to impose a “living wage” for workers, something she believes only the federal government should impose. The courts might even challenge the ordinance constitutionally, she added.

Mitts also charged that the ordinance is unfairly targeting low-income communities. It passed out of the City Council’s Finance Committee late June. The committee changed the space provision, hiking it from 75,000 to 90,000 square feet. Mitts accused committeemen of raising that number to avoid having a retail store currently being built on the South Side fall under the ordinance. The store, reportedly covering 80,000 square feet, she said, is being built in Ald. Thomas Murphy’s 18th Ward.

“They upped it to make sure his project was exempt, but they still want to get Wal-Mart,” said Mitts. “If you have to change an ordinance so many times, then that tells me something is wrong with it.”

The committee also opted for a three-year phase-in of the “living wage,” starting with $9.25 an hour and $1.50 in benefits on July 1, 2007. The wage would increase to $9.50 plus $2 in benefits on July 1 2008; $9.75 and $2.50 on July 1, 2009, and $10 and $3 on July 1, 2010. The wage would be raised annually after that to match the rate of inflation.

Employees worry

Austin resident Dewanda Williams was hired as a Wal-Mart cashier and has been in training for the last few weeks. Williams, who wasn’t working before landing with Wal-Mart, is one of 400 current and potential employees of the Austin store. Since the store began accepting applications in April, roughly 9,000 have applied.

Williams said she’s very concerned about the Big Box ordinance.

“As a community, we won’t have that much to lose, but a whole lot to gain,” said Williams, referring to the 400 jobs that Wal-Mart may bring to Austin. “As a community, we want Wal-Mart.”

Clifton Young, an Austin resident, isn’t worried about finding employment since he already has a job. But Young said he has friends who are looking for work, and that the Austin Wal-Mart would be a good place to start. At least one friend, he said, has a criminal record. Young is concerned that if the ordinance passes, and retailers like Wal-Mart are forced to pay $10 in hourly wages, such stores may tighten hiring practices and look for higher-skilled workers. That could result in ex-offenders or those with only a high school diploma or GED being left out, he said.

“If we want those people to come back out and be a productive citizen, we have to be able to find them jobs. That’s why I like Wal-Mart, and what they’re trying to do,” said Young.

Not everyone, however, heaps such praise on the giant retailer.

Unions have accused Wal-Mart of underpaying its employees and blocking their efforts to unionize, among other complaints. Big Box ordinance supporters also point to a poll commissioned by proponents showing support among registered voters for wage standards by larger retailers like Wal-Mart, even if jobs are at risk.

Though at least 30 aldermen have pledged to support to ordinance, the “Big Box” could spell a big headache even for them. Target announced last week that it was halting construction on three South Side stores and may pull out of the city altogether if the City Council goes through with the ordinance. It’s a consequence Ald. Mitts finds troubling.

She said she wanted to bring in Wal-Mart not only for jobs, but to make shopping and traveling easier for West Side shoppers. She predicts that could all fall apart if the City Council passes the Big Box ordinance.

“I didn’t fight for Wal-Mart to come in because I wanted a Wal-Mart,” said Mitts. “I saw the services that were needed in the community. I thought, why should people have to go out of their community to go to Wal-Mart?”