Big box stores mean fewer jobs for poor

By Samuel Rosenberg

Returning to Hyde Park for another school year, the students at the University of Chicago are once again thrown into a city brimming with political buzz. While the city was full of action during the summer, the most important issue directly affecting our student body focuses on the all-too necessary activity of shopping. As any resident of Hyde Park will surely attest, our shopping options are limited. For clothes, most students venture downtown, and when it comes to food we are faced with entering the high-priced and poorly stocked Co-Op. Any progress on improving the lives of Hyde Park students via better shopping access was dealt a serious blow on July 26 when the Chicago City Council passed the “Big Box Ordinance” on a 35–14 vote.

The measure applies to stores of at least 90,000 square feet operated by firms with $1 billion or more in annual sales. Such firms include Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and (the main aim of the ordinance) Wal-Mart. Also dubbed the “Living Wage Ordinance,” it states that by 2010 the minimum wage for employees in such stores must be $10 an hour and offer $3 in fringe benefits. Automatic annual cost-of-living increases will apply thereafter.

The City of Chicago has always prided itself on being the “city that works,” but that’s only true for certain areas of the city. Many wards, especially on the South Side, have not seen positive job growth in decades. As 3rd ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman pointed out in her speech on the City Council floor, it is predominantly blacks being deprived of jobs because of this measure. Additionally, it is not only jobs that are being held from these neighborhoods, but overall health and well-being.

In mid-July, a highly publicized study pointed out that individuals who live in “food deserts,” areas on the South and West Sides with few grocery stores, have a higher rate of obesity and dietary-based disease. It does not take a genius to realize that when individuals do not have easy access to decent grocery stores, they will settle for fast food and packaged products of little or no health value.

It is no coincidence that these “food deserts” are the areas where simple talk of Wal-Mart and Target developments has caused landlords to spruce up their store fronts, hoping for new renters and for property values to increase. The argument that the corner grocery store will be put out of business by a Wal-Mart is moot because Chicago lost most of these stores decades ago. The big boxes simply want to go where they are desperately needed.

On September 13 the City Council will meet once again, and Mayor Daley will be forced to confront a difficult issue. He is going to have to either let the Big Box Ordinance stand or use his first-ever executive veto in his 17 years as mayor. But it isn’t that simple. He has to make sure that two aldermen change their vote from for the ordinance to against; otherwise the council could just overturn the veto.

Politics aside, if the ordinance actually becomes law, the long term effects of it are extremely worrisome. Establishing $10 an hour as the “living wage” gives a baseline from which the unions can build. Conventions and trade shows already cringe at the relatively high labor cost that Chicago unions bring to McCormick Place; other cities without such a union presence can more easily accommodate the expositions that employ hundreds of laborers. It is one issue to declare that the minimum wage should be raised, but another to do so with the express goal of attacking a particular industry at the request of the unions.

While Wal-Mart and other big box stores may have to work on their labor relations and their pay scale, we—as a city—are not in the position to stand on our soapboxes and decry the evils of industry. There are too many impoverished neighborhoods with no jobs and no potential, meanwhile the city government is wrapped up in ideology. While Joe Moore and the like may think that they are doing this city a great service, they have clearly not driven through the streets of Austin within the past few years or taken a walk through Englewood. The retailers will pass Chicago by without a second thought and open their doors in neighboring suburbs while drawing in the urban customer. No debate was raised by the unions when Target opened in Evergreen Park, and thousands flock across the border weekly to buy their goods. The coffers of this suburban community welcome the tax dollars and the rejuvenated strip centers. While Chicago may battle their entrance, the big box stores find a welcome mat just a few blocks over.

Alderman Howard Brookins hit an original note on the City Council floor when, in arguing against the ordinance, he pointed out that Wal-Mart cannot be viewed as a permanent solution to this city’s job problem. While the ordinance has also been dubbed the “Living Wage” ordinance, Brookins stated that we are kidding ourselves if we believe a Wal-Mart clerk or stockman should be viewed as a job for life. Such jobs, he stated, are a gateway to economic development and better jobs across the board for districts sorely in need of business growth. Just like the citizens who would be working at these stores, our city is in a similar situation. A retail store is no substitute for professional organizations or a strong 21st century economy, but it is moving in the correct direction. If Chicago is going to continue to be a city that works, it must allow big box retailers into its neighborhoods and take the first step toward a more comprehensive and successful economic development plan.