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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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I do not believe it is the government's role to legislate the law of supply and demand. I am of the mind that with truly free competition, optimal prices for goods and services -- including labor -- will arise.

However, there is much that is unfree about the competition in the current market. The unholy matrimony between the unscrupulous, entrenched privileged elite and many legislators has been wildly successful in placing myriad obstacles to free competition in the market place in order to benefit the gentlemen millionaires of the leisure class at the expense of the upper middle class and working families. So this should be the true goal of organized workers and community associations: the removal of obstacles.

Using a cutthroat model of undercutting your competition while eradicating the ability of smaller firms to grow their own productive workforce is not responsible citizenship nor is it free competition. If competition is what we most value, we as citizens who share a community with institutions like Wal-Mart have the absolute right to make the playing field level for entrepreneurs and smaller competitors. That is the American way, after all. The "Big Box Ordinance" sought to do just that: ensure a truly free local market.

In response to Wal-Mart's success in gaining access to Chicago's retail market, scholars, community organizations, religious groups and organized labor worked closely with several alderman to ensure the livelihoods of thousands of working Chicagoans by crafting a "living wage" ordinance that would ensure that big-box retailers pay a standard of at least $9.40 an hour, with $3 an hour in benefits, and also place other restrictions on their ability to curb employees' right to association and other abuses for which Wal-Mart is renown.

On Monday, September 20, the City Council's powerful Finance Committee, headed by long-serving South Side Alderman Ed Burke (14th), convened to hear testimony supporting the living wage ordinance. The arguments for the ordinance are manifold: it would keep Chicago's retailers from a race to the bottom, it would ensure fair competition in the labor market, and it would protect the collective bargaining rights of thousands of service-sector workers, many of whom live at or near the poverty line and who fought for decades to improve their working conditions.

While discussing the merits of a Big-Box Living Wage Ordinance introduced by Alderman Joe Moore (49th), and a separate one introduced by Alds. Ed Burke, William Beavers (7th) and Dany Solis (25th), several aldermen hijacked the testimony and turned it into a personal assault on organized labor, with accusations of labor racism and greed being bandied about.

Two West Side aldermen, Emma Mitts (37th) and her political godfather Isaac Carothers (29th), obsessed with making Wal-Mart's entry into Chicago as comfortable as possible for the wealthiest corporation in the world, effectively sank the debate and testimony by turning the hearing into a chest-banging shouting match centered on their political careers. The only reason Mitts and Carothers oppose the Big Box Ordinance is that they realize Wal-Mart would never consent to treating its workers humanely.

Alds. Mitts and Carothers also berated UIC scholar and economist Chirag Mehta, using anemic and anecdotal arguments to diffuse the damning evidence presented in his study of the proposed Wal-Mart, released by UIC's Center for Urban Economic Development. Statements like, "Have you ever been to the [area]?" and "There's nothing there!" are evidence of their complete unwillingness to listen to reason on the issue.

The fact is, Wal-Mart is no solution to the problems of joblessness in the 37th Ward. Mitts' reckless, myopic attitude towards an employer that is known for destroying jobs and competition and mistreating its workers is a harbinger of her concern for her immediate political future, as opposed to a sincere concern for the residents of her ward. Many of her colleagues are in the same boat as she is, but they have fought hard for sensible, cautious, and responsible solutions: Ald. Dany Solis (25th) on the Near West Side, Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) in Grand Crossing and Ald. Tom Murphy (18th) all faced similar problems and have made considerable progress without resorting to a "let them eat crumbs" philosophy.

Carothers then produced a fax he claimed was sent by Chicago Federation of Labor officials which contained a weblog entry attacking Mitts and other aldermen for supporting Wal-Mart. Completely disregarding the true purpose of the hearing -- to fight to ensure a better standard of living for all Chicagoans, whether unionized or not -- Mitts affected great injury to the passages in the column calling for an opponent to unseat her and a personal willingness to work for her opposition.

Mitts' and Carothers' opposition to the Living Wage Ordinance makes them enemies of the small business owners and working people of Chicago. Therefore, those who represent so many working people -- and the affected workers are by and large service-sector workers, many of them barely above the poverty line -- in Chicago have every right and reason to oppose them. However entitled she may feel to her office, citizens of the City of Chicago, be they labor leaders or otherwise, have a right to criticize her as a politician. The outrage she showed in that council meeting, that somebody should wish to see her defeated, is an insult to the democratic process.

The Sun-Times' wonderful City Hall reporter Fran Spielman quoted her as saying, "I represent that ward and the people there elected me, so, come on with it [in] 2007... Bring it on…because I will stay on the battlefield for the constituents in my ward, [for whom] I get up daily, 24-7, working…to improve the quality of life." Indeed, Mitts has overseen some improvements in the ward, including the building of a commercial strip at Cicero and North Avenue.

However, her battlefield generalship could be called into question regarding the closings of the Helene Curtis plant -- a loss of about 600 jobs -- and the continuing exodus of small-scale manufacturing jobs. Perhaps her West Side allies who have fought so hard to help bring in the Wal-Mart should have teamed up to stop the closing of the Brach's Candy plant in the neighboring 28th Ward, which cost 1,500 jobs. The planned Wal-Mart would create about 220, and reports indicate would destroy as many as 277. A possible net job growth of –2,157. If this is Alderman Mitts' battlefield record, perhaps we should start calling her Alderman Custer.

She is not fighting for the people of her ward by inviting in what her own allies on the Council have termed a "Death Star" which will surely choke out competition, destroy jobs, and lower the standard of living for retail workers across the city. She is seeking a cosmetic fix for her chronic inability to keep jobs in her ward. She would invite an employer that according to a Congressional report is guilty of inhumane labor practices -- including exploitation of immigrant labor and mandated lost break time that has lead to diabetic comas, cardiac arrests and self-urination -- to mistreat Chicagoans. In what sort of sick reality is this "fighting for" her constituents?

By what authority does Alderman Mitts express outrage that somebody would be willing to participate in the democratic process by supporting a candidate for office? She has no right to that sense of outrage, and as an elected official, she should be outright ashamed of it.

So allow me to make this perfectly clear: no alderman, no matter how long serving or powerful, is entitled to their office. Some of our city's best aldermen -- Toni Preckwinkle (4th), William Banks (36th), Freddrenna Lyle (6th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Tom Murphy and Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th) among others -- work hard to be responsive and accountable; their hard work is cheapened by Mitts' posturing. Would these colleagues defend her sense of monarchical entitlement to her office? Selfish or near-sighted opposition to an ordinance seeking to protect the small business owners and working people of Chicago is a serious issue and that Mitts and others would be willing to trivialize the issue and turn it into a squabble over their personal ambitions is childish, cynical, and reckless. Wal-Mart threatens to undercut regional competition and drive down the wages of thousands of workers in similar retail -- and, in the future, grocery -- establishments.

And let me be even more frank: with all due respect, Alderman, this is not about you or your political sponsors and aspirations. This is about the livelihoods of thousands of working Chicagoans and business owners. Years down the road, when thousands of retail workers are locked out, their wages dropping and their benefits eroding, and countless entrepreneurs file for bankruptcy, no amount of fax waving will hide your shame.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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