Editor’s note: As of press time, the City Council was still in session on the Big Box Ordinance.

One day before a scheduled City Council vote on Chicago’s proposed “Big Box” ordinance, community groups on both sides made their final push to garner support.

Members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) came to City Hall Tuesday to present a petition containing more than 10,000 signatures to council members in a last-ditch effort to sway their vote in favor of the controversial proposal.

The Big Box ordinance would require retailers with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, and who operate stores with more than 90,000 square feet of space, to pay workers a minimum of $10 per hour plus $3 in benefits by 2010.

“Everywhere we went, people were largely in support of this,” said ACORN organizer Shiren Rattigan. “We need this to pass.”

Arguments over the proposed ordinance intensified after the council delayed its vote last month. Since then, those in favor and those opposed have stepped up their publicity campaigns.

A group of ordinance supporters planned a prayer vigil outside City Hall late Tuesday, followed by an all-night prayer vigil at the Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church.

Before the planned prayer vigil, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who opposes the ordinance, also appeared at a City Hall news conference, in which he announced the new president of Chicago’s Board of Education, Rufus Williams. He would not take questions on matters other than Williams’ appointment.

Earlier in the week, however, four African-American ministers appeared at a Monday news conference with Daley. The ministers insisted that their communities oppose the ordinance because of its potential to scare away retailers that don’t want to pay the higher wages required. And also on Monday, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce held a rally representing more than 30 businesses to speak out against the proposal, claiming that its passage would drive out large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, causing a loss of much-needed jobs and revenue to the city.

“This proposal is bad for retailers, bad for residents looking for jobs, and bad for future growth and economic development in Chicago,” Chamber of Commerce president Jerry Roper said.

The proposal, whose main sponsor is Ald. Joe Moore (49th), was scheduled for a vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. If it passes, large retailers will have to pay a minimum hourly working wage of $9.25 and benefits of $1.50 effective July 1, 2007, to increase by 25 cents each subsequent year until 2010. The pay requirement applies only to employees who work more than 10 hours a week.

In addition to the pay increases, at stake is a little-known, non-discriminatory clause making it illegal for large retailers to deny employment to those convicted of a crime. Under the measure, people who believe they have been discriminated against because of a past criminal offense can file a grievance with city officials, who will require the employer provide a written statement providing reasons for the denial.

According to Paul Sonn, a law professor with New York University’s Brenner Center for Justice, Chicago’s proposed clause is of the few such pieces its kind in the nation.

“It marks a real step forward in helping those people coming out of jail to reestablish themselves back into the workforce,” Sonn said.

Mitts sees future in 'Wal-Mart' model

By JENNIFER DOME, Medill News Service

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) hopes a new Wal-Mart store will turn the tide for her community, which has long experienced hard economic times.

The store at Grand and Kilpatrick Avenues in Austin is expected to open on Sept. 19, bringing hundreds of jobs to the West Side.

"Our community is deprived of grocery stores and any retail," Mitts said on Tuesday before the City Council's vote on the "Big Box" ordinance

She is just one Chicago City Council member involved in the heated battle over the ordinance that would require large retailers such as Wal-Mart to increase wages for all employees who work at least 10 hours a week to $10 an hour by July 2010.

"I'm not in support of the ordinance, first of all, because I think the ordinance is a way to target the Wal-Mart," Mitts said.

For the last four years, Mitts has worked to bring the superstore to the 37th Ward because people in her community need jobs, she said. The entry-level wage at the new store will start at $7.25 an hour, Mitts said. Wal-Mart reports its average, full-time hourly wage in Chicago is $10.99.

Mitts fears other big box retailers, such as Menard Inc., which is scheduled to build an Austin store, will bail out if the ordinance is approved.

"I don't understand this opportunity we're being denied when we've come so far," Mitts said.