Depending on your personal point-of-view, the opening of the new West Side Wal-Mart is either the ultimate victory for big business partners, who now, free of the obligations of adhering to the stringent guidelines set down by the proposed Big Box Ordinance, can focus all their attention on creating huge profits for its partners, puffing stogies on yachts in Bermuda.
Or, on the other hand, is it the ultimate victory for a community that, despite its impressive historical pedigree, has been hungering for the opportunity to create new business opportunities in a residentially dense area with too much space, too few jobs and too few legitimate alternative proposals to bring new businesses, be they small or large, into the community?
I am more aligned with the latter.
“I return herewith, without my approval an Ordinance passed by the City Council on July 26, 2006,” said Mayor Richard Daley in his first-ever veto message. “I understand and share a desire to ensure that everyone who works in the City of Chicago earns a decent wage. However, I do not believe that this ordinance, well intentioned as it may be, would achieve that end. Rather, I believe it would drive jobs and businesses from our city, penalizing neighborhoods that need additional economic activity the most. In light of this, I believe it is my duty to veto this ordinance.”
The speech created a backlash from City Council members and labor unions alike who accused the mayor of favoring big business over the blue-collar workers of Chicago.
However, despite the firestorm, it is my personal belief that the negative consequences of the Big Box Ordinance would far outweigh the benefits.
One of them is the fact that if the ordinance were in effect, requiring Wal-Mart and other “big box” retailers to pay employees a “living wage” of at least $13 an hour in wages and benefits by 2010, it would force companies to simply respond to this by hiring fewer staff. Instead of 5,000 at $7 an hour, they will take on more like 2,500 at $10 an hour. Once the basic bottom-line is upheld, they will still reach their projected profits while creating fewer jobs in a community with few to begin with.
Another is the fact that the argument from the Big Box supporters to “listen to the voice of the voters” in the grand scheme of things, is not, and should not be the concern of Wal-Mart, who has the right to set the salary at the level they want without regulation by government (as long as it’s above minimum wage). It is no more Wal-Mart’s responsibility to assure that their employee who is single mother of three makes enough to support her family than it is the City Council’s.
Eventually, the responsibility has to fall on the individuals who will know entering their stint as a Wal-Mart employee what they will make and weigh that against their cost of living. They can make the decision for themselves whether the job pays enough-without the regulations of government or complaints by labor unions.
For every picket sign and anti-big business sentiment uttered in the last two weeks in the aftermath of the vetoed ordinance, there were probably a dozen job applications received by the recruiting offices of Wal-Mart for a position, any position, within their North & Kimbark store. If you were to ask the applicants whether they would take $7-an-hour or nothing, I believe the vast majority would chose working over not working. As the saying goes, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.”
This is not to say that supporters of the living wage proposals do not have valid points.
The idea that companies like Wal-Mart are simply trying to bring “businesses in communities to create job growth” feels about as true as their support of local unions. The simple fact of the matter is, after conquering Lansing, Evergreen Park and Wilmette, the only markets left to open new businesses are highly concentrated urban markets with few true competitors and many willing patrons tired of traveling 20 miles for stereo equipment. Wal-Mart saw this great, untapped cash cow and pounced. For that, they do not deserve to wear halos or receive the Nobel Prize.
In the end though, it may be time to think outside the big box and figure out how to bring more businesses to the West Side, businesses that may pay more than $7-an-hour so that all community residents can reap the benefits.