In a rare show of independence, the City Council last Wednesday overwhelmingly passed the controversial “big box” ordinance, which had been staunchly opposed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.
The measure, which will phase in a living wage of $10 for employees at large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, easily cleared the City Council in a veto-proof 35-14 vote, raising questions about Daley’s influence over his aldermen.
During an unprecedented six-hour and 30-minute session, aldermen on the both sides hotly debated the ordinance. Close to 20 different members spoke passionately about the positive and negative affects that such a bill will have on Chicago businesses. Last Wednesday’s session began at around 10 in the morning and didn’t conclude until the final vote was cast at around 4:30 in the afternoon.
The bill could have real effects as early as September, when Chicago’s first Wal-Mart is scheduled to open in the Austin on the city’s West Side.
Proponents claim that the living wage will enable big-box employees to pay their bills, put food on the table and emerge from severe poverty. Opponents argued that the measure would prevent major retailers from developing in Chicago, which will rob poor communities of much-needed jobs. The question of the ordinance’s legality was also raised repeatedly.
The atmosphere outside the council chambers, meanwhile, was charged with tension as protesters and activists rallied in the corridor, cheering and jeering during the session.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the main sponsor of the ordinance kicked off the debate by comparing the legislation to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. That law established the nation’s first federal minimum wage at 40 cents.
The minimum wage in Illinois is $6.50 an hour. The national minimum wage of $5.15 hasn’t been raised since the early days of the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
“In urging passage of this legislation, FDR declared, ‘No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,’ ” said Moore. “Those words ring just as true now as they did 68 years ago.”
Moore went on to compare the “big box” ordinance to recent bills passed in San Francisco and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where big box retailers, he claimed, are expanding. In San Francisco, where the starting salary for employees will be $10.75 an hour, Home Depot recently decided to open a new store, Moore said.
“Why do big box stores continue to operate in Santa Fe and San Francisco, and why are more stores opening up? Because there is a buck to be made – a lot of bucks,” he said.
Moore’s speech, which met with sporadic bursts of applause from support groups in the audience, was immediately countered by Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) – an early sign of the back and forth debate that was to continue for the next several hours.
“My colleague to the right,” Stone said of Moore, “has assumed to put on the cloak of President Roosevelt. I don’t think he was alive when President Roosevelt was alive. I was.”
“What he doesn’t remember, of course, is that the New Deal was passed for all workers; not for a select few,” Stone added. “The ordinance before us is not for all workers.”
The personal jabs continued throughout the session as proponents and opponents lobbed insults across the aisles. Some aldermen called the bill a “racist” measure for threatening to impose heavy wages on big box stores only after they began to develop in African-American neighborhoods.
Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), on the other hand, accused the proponents of being paid off by big box stores to vote down the proposal.
“[At least] I went to bed last night knowing that I had not been bought and paid for,” she said.
In the end, the debate evolved into a gloves-off battle, with Ald. Harold Brookings Jr. (21st), who was opposed to the ordinance, slamming his microphone onto the table.
Ald. Isaac S. Carothers (29th), another opponent, launched into a long church-like sermon. After the vote, an unidentified audience member, who called minority aldermen opposed to the bill “a bunch of sell-outs, was escorted out by police.
Is Daley’s grip on the council waning?
After the meeting adjourned following the vote, Daley held a news conference, denying he was losing his vaunted influence on the council. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “People have their own minds.”
Daley had proposed a compromise early last week calling for a ward-by-ward decision on whether to implement the so-called living wage, but that proposal never found any traction among council members.
“I always think compromise should take place,” he said last Wednesday. But on this issue, he contended, “I think people got so caught up in the rhetoric – ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.'”
But few would doubt that the mayor has been sailing in rough waters recently. Recent allegations of scandal stemming from the Sorich trial and alleged torture by former police Lieutenant Jon Burge, has fueled questions about whether Daley is losing control.
Asked if his administration failed to lobby aldermen early and hard enough, Daley deflected the question. “We tried to get people to talk about the issue,” he said. “Aldermen talked to me about the issue.”
Daley added that he had never considered vetoing the ordinance, and “hadn’t even thought” about vetoing it. But the next hurdle for the ordinance may be a legal challenge to the ordinance’s constitutionality.