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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The Chicago City Council is preparing to consider the big box living wage ordinance, a highly contentious bit of legislation that is the culmination of years of strategizing and organizing by organized labor, community groups, religious leaders and progressive legislators. The Big Box Ordinance, as it is being termed, is sponsored by 49th Ward (East Rogers Park) Alderman Joe Moore, who has taken a long enough break from protecting goose livers to write this excellent piece of common-sense legislation. The ordinance is a classic example of a legislative outmaneuver designed to apply pressure to institutions (in this case, huge retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot) whose size and influence make them impervious to traditional forms of pressure.

Wal-Mart and Target have responded with big business' favorite stand-by, threatening to take their precious, precious jobs elsewhere.

Why apply pressure to these retailers, who bring cheap goods and jobs to Chicago neighborhoods? That's an excellent question, and one with which many Chicagoans, even nominal progressives, grapple. Legislators who are otherwise rabidly pro-working family — to use a tired, almost meaningless phrase — shrug and point to jobs coming to economically depressed areas. Mediocre aldermen like Emma Mitts (37th), desperate to add something, anything, to an otherwise barren record of accomplishment in office, get all huffy when discussing the Big Box ordinance, pointing out that it is very difficult to attract large-scale retail to poor — and black — neighborhoods in Chicago, and that consumers are fleeing to the suburbs to get at those sweet Wal-Mart goods. Man-on-the-street interviews will regularly yield "nobody else is bringing jobs to this neighborhood" type responses.

This may be a good point, except that it suffers from the same faulty logic that so much of our political discourse does, especially at the state and local level: businesses are treated like some kind of Johnny Job-leseeds, benevolently and selflessly traipsing the wide-open frontier country casting low-paying, benefitless gigs from their magical jobs sack.

It is ridiculous, the crocodile tears people weep for Wal-Mart and Target and the like, how these supposed tough Chicago aldermen wilt like hot house flowers when Target makes empty threats, insinuating they won't build any more stores in Chicago if this ordinance passes. Aldermen are even repeating corporate talking points, spreading rumors about suburban Wal-Marts setting up shuttle buses to bring shoppers in depressed neighborhoods out to their outlets across the border.

The faulty logic: Wal-Mart/Target/Home Depot/business generally needs to be handled with kid gloves, or jobs will go poof.

This is all bull, of course, especially when you're talking about retail. Wal-Mart and Target do not open stores in poor areas — rural or urban — because they're so committed to bringing 150 low-paying jobs with minimal room for advancement to those areas. They're going — and this is important, so pay attention — they're going to make money. Lots and lots and lots of money. In fact, in the case of Wal-Mart, more money than any other company on planet Earth. In the case of Target, still a whole lot of money. More money than you can even imagine. You know how much money? So much money that if you put it in a simple savings account and started counting it dollar-by-dollar, it would earn interest so fast that you would never finish counting it. In fact, you could have 1,000 people counting it and they still would never finish.

Maybe this will be better illustrated if we can sort of act it out. Imagine a bunch of people — white people — in a board room in Bentonville, Arkansas, about 10 years ago. Behind them are a number of graphs and pie charts and a big ol' map on the wall. One of these white people stands up and lumbers over to the map and explains to the rest of the people there:

"These red tacks are our current stores. You'll note they're spread across rural and exurban areas." He uses a laser pointer to trace the pattern of Wal-Marts, predominately in poor rural areas in the South and Midwest, and everybody murmurs, a few of them munching on gold-leaf plated krullers and eclairs, flown in that morning from a convent in rural France where all the nuns had taken a vow of silence.

"These green tacks are where we will be focusing our new stores after saturating the suburbs over the next five years." He laser points to Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. "There are a lot of economically depressed areas starving for jobs. With a labor market like that, we can count on an endless supply of cheap labor we can treat however we please, and we can be sure they'll keep their mouths shut about it."



It was more or less like that. You see, the people at Wal-Mart are not stupid. They pay all variety of very smart people, actuaries and the like, to figure out the economic benefits of moving into economically depressed urban areas. You know what those people told them? I'll give you a hint; it rhymes with "da-ching!"

So Target gets all snuffy, gathering up its num-num and insisting it'll go home if we pass this ordinance. Unfair to competition! they whine. Yet these corporations expect all varieties of tax breaks and socially-funded programs to prop up their "human capital" systems. Not only that, but in providing their $8 an hour jobs, they're sending their millions back to Arkansas and Minnesota, to be split among their shareholders or the Walton Kids, so they can add another Fabergé egg to the bin of Fabergé eggs their kids swim around in when they have a pizza party.

What exactly does this ordinance do?

Judging by the reactions of the various big business associations and anti-worker conservatives, you'd think it started out, "Whereas, The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another..." But it doesn't. Basically, the ordinance calls for a mandatory wage package of up to $13.00 an hour by 2010 for retailers with 90,000 square feet of interior space and $1 billion in profit across the corporation. After 2010, the "living wage" would be pegged to government figures of inflation and consumer prices. There can be absolutely no doubt that Wal-Mart, Target and friends could easily afford this. So why the resistance? Why the hullabaloo? Why the public relations nightmare that comes with repeatedly telling West and South Siders that they aren't worth an extra buck or two an hour (in Target's case, the "living wage" is barely higher than their prevailing wage)?

Of course, it is partially ideological. It is partially brattiness, these behemoth corporations being used to being the boss and throwing their weight around to get exactly what they want, whenever they want it, bullying employees and communities simply because they can.

There's also this: the ordinance, as originally written, set these retailers up to be organized. By unions. That's right. I'd be willing to wager dollars to gold-leaf plated silent nun donuts that this was the offending element of the ordinance, since deleted via compromise:

4-404-040 Access to Public Areas of Large Retailers.
a. Any member of the public shall have access to the public areas of a large retailer to engage in non-commercial speech with customers and employees on matters relating to community affairs, religion, politics, business practices, workplace rights or topics of public concern. Such speech may include distributing literature relating to such matters and soliciting signatures on forms or petitions addressed to public officials, government agencies, religious organizations, business entities, or other community institutions. "Public areas" means parking lots, sidewalks, pedestrian areas, outdoor employee break areas, and other similar outdoor areas.

Shorter Section 4-404-040: "Union organizers can talk to your employees, on your lot."

So vociferous was the original opposition to this part of the ordinance that the retailers more or less painted themselves into a corner, and now have no choice but to just keep on fighting what is essentially a harmless ordinance that will have almost no net effect on these retailers. (And we know it will have almost no net effect because Wal-Mart submitted to such an ordinance in Santa Fe with no real effect).

The quivering aldermen and their community allies, notably this "Ministerial Coalition for Jobs," are wrong to wring their hands over the ordinance. They should follow the lead of aldermen Freddrenna Lyle (6th) and Leslie Hairston (5th), two South Siders who aren't buying the "we'll build in the suburbs," threats, mostly because Wal-Mart and Target already have built all over the suburbs and if that was enough to sate them, they would do it anyway.

When businesses extort communities to avoid paying real taxes or being a good neighbor, we shrug and call that development. When communities try to get theirs, we're degenerating into authoritarian communism. Look — everybody is just trying to make a living. Aldermen Mitts, Brookins and their anti-worker cohorts need to quit mewling and puking from their perch in the laps of the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world and learn to stand on their hind legs.

Their current posture, coiled and purring, is not becoming.

GB store


John Powers / July 20, 2006 7:27 PM

And when the vast majority of consumers pay extoritionate prices to satisfy the Socialists? We have the Chicago that Carhanan craves.

Damn the consumer, it is all about workers and business..isn't it?


mike / July 21, 2006 3:18 PM

Wait. I'm confused.

By extroritionate prices, do
you mean
Short Sleeve Tee Without Pocket: Price: $5.99 from
Faded No Pocket Tee $7.87, which helps to destroy the benefit rights of low-income workers, makes the average US citizen dependent on Big-Box retailers, and leads to abuses on outsourcing-- not to mention the profits which actually do go to the weirdly super-rich Walden family and friends.

Anyway, seems like being a better educated capatalist could save you a little money. Oh well, best to let those damn socialists reap the consumer rewards.

- True free market capatalists understand Big-Box retailers, expecially Wal-Mart, directly challenges the free market.
See: Wal-Mart's "no-nonsence negotiating" and "Wal-Mart's war on anti-trust law (which for nearly 100 years has protected the consumer and preserves competition)

Now, excuse me, I'm going to go spend my exta $1.88 on somethiing that you would like to buy.

mike z.

m / July 21, 2006 5:17 PM

Yeah, what's so all-American about using your immense power to bully suppliers into lowering their prices to a level other traditional stores cannot compete with? What's American about using entitlements like Medicare as a form of corporate welfare. Whenever guys like John Power throw around the word "socialist" you know what really motivates them is their belief that if it'll save them $0.23 on a pack of paper towels, little guy be damned.


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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