Jobs or Else: An unlikely alliance works to bring Walmart to the 21st Ward

Illustration by Ellis Calvin

Illustration by Ellis Calvin

On July 29, 2009, dozens of pro-Walmart protesters filled Chicago’s City Council meeting, and hundreds in matching “Jobs or Else!” T-shirts gathered outside City Hall. After months of delays, it finally seemed that the Council would hold a definitive vote on Alderman Howard Brookins’ (21st) ordinance permitting the construction of a Walmart at 83rd and Stewart in Chatham. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the Council effectively voted not to vote, transferring the issue from the Rules Committee to the Finance Committee, which had overseen it in the first place.

Since 2004, the retailer has tried to open within city limits, with limited success. In 2006, the Council passed a “living wage” ordinance that would have required retailers with stores larger than 90,000 square feet and annual profits greater than $1 billion–namely, Walmart–to pay employees $13 in hourly wages and benefits. It would have scuttled the chain’s plans in Chicago proper had it stood, but Mayor Daley exercised his veto power, for the first time in 17 years in office, and several aldermen defected to him. A 142,000-square-foot store opened in the West Side neighborhood of Austin weeks later, but it’s the only one within city limits, and aldermanic opposition has remained staunch.

To the eponymous organization providing T-shirts to the protesters, such opposition is perverse. As Jobs or Else spokesman and Grammy-winning “Jesus Walks” co-writer Rhymefest explains in a video, “In the black community, there’s not a recession, there’s a depression…This Walmart is going to facilitate three to five hundred new jobs for the community.” In a television interview the night before the thwarted vote, Brookins echoed that sentiment, stating, “With unemployment in the black community looking at 20 percent and higher…it’s time to say yes.” If Chatham is anything like Austin, interest in the positions should be outsize. Within weeks of opening, the Austin Walmart had received more than 25,000 applications for approximately 450 openings.

Walmart backers have also billed the store as a source for fresh groceries in Chatham. Independent scholar Mari Gallagher deemed the area a “food desert” for its lack of grocery stores, and in June, five years after Walmart first attempted to enter Chicago, the Illinois Assembly approved $10 million for a Fresh Food Fund to encourage grocers to invest in underserved communities. But supermarkets aren’t the only ones who may be avoiding Chatham. In the same July interview, Brookins lamented, “We’ve asked every major corporation out there to locate in our ward…and they said no. We’ve asked Costco, we’ve asked Dominick’s, we’ve asked Sears, we’ve asked Kmart. You name it, any box of any size that would bring other traffic to that mall, they’ve all said no.” The proposed site, a former steel mill, is currently home to a Lowe’s home improvement store, and not much else.

But is the Walmart plan actually popular? The retailer says so, and funded a massive one-question survey to prove it. The day before the July 29 council meeting, it dialed 1.2 million Chicagoans (every listing in the white pages, supplemented by voter registration rolls), telling them that “advocates of the [proposed store] cite the four hundred-plus jobs that will be created and the wider availability of fresh groceries and other goods. Opponents to building the Walmart say the jobs are not good enough,” before asking poll respondents if they thought the Council should approve construction. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the phrasing, more than 74 percent of the 75,437 respondents citywide were in favor. Support was strongest in the 21st Ward, but across nearly the entire South Side it surpassed 80 percent. Even in the North Side wards coolest to the survey, around 60 percent were in favor.

In late August, the Chicago Tribune conducted its own Walmart poll, and found 68 percent of those surveyed favored construction, while 72 percent agreed that it would be good for the community. Among African-Americans, the percentages were 72 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Those numbers seem reasonable to Jobs or Else leader and Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church pastor Leon Finney, who says that the store is “absolutely” desired. “I don’t think there’s any question Chicagoans want Walmart in,” he says, “[but] labor has a way of circumventing the will of the people.” In his Jobs or Else video, Rhymefest says as much: “Politicians have been persuaded…by money or whatever the case…to vote against this Walmart because of certain unions.”

Walmart’s aldermanic opponents are open about their union sympathies. Back in July, 14th Ward Alderman and Finance Committee Chair Edward Burke told the Chicago Sun-Times that “Chicago is a strong union town…if Walmart can come into Chicago and operate on a non-union basis, then how can Jewel and Dominick’s and the other food chains continue to have union men and women?” If that loyalty puts him at risk of seeming out of touch with his other constituents, it’s one that Burke, first elected in 1969 and the city’s longest-serving alderman, seems unperturbed by.

To Finney, though, it’s unfair to conflate support for Walmart with opposition to unions. He speaks admiringly of Congress of Industrial Organizations organizer Saul Alinsky and “Rules for Radicals,” Alinsky’s seminal manual of community organizing. Finney also mentions his own career as a labor organizer and his consistent support for minimum wage increases. But in his eyes, lack of economic development is the biggest problem facing the South Side, and placing onerous conditions on Walmart’s proposed investment is a mistake. Looking at the history of the site itself, he points out that first, “the [steel] plants opened up. Then the unions organized and negotiated.”

However, most of Walmart’s opponents contest the idea that the store would benefit Chicago economically. Alderman Freddrenna Lyle, who represents the 6th Ward, directly east of the 21st, told the Sun-Times a Walmart would create a “two-mile radioactive zone” of shuttered businesses. Bloggers, including Kevin Robinson at Chicagoist, have claimed that the presence of a (unionized) Jewel at 87th and Lafayette belies the idea that Chatham is a “food desert.” And Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) complain that the retailer’s wages are unconscionably low, that its profits leave the community, and that the products it stocks are acquired too cheaply. For SOUL, which counts Reverend Otis Moss at Trinity United Church of Christ and Father Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina Catholic Church among its allies, opposing Walmart “is part of a larger effort to ensure that large corporations do not exploit our communities.”

University of Chicago economics professor Allen Sanderson disagrees emphatically. A Walmart would be good for the South Side, he wrote in an email interview, “and on the north side and west side (but not on the east side – a problem because of Lake Michigan).” Why? “Its low prices are a boon to the poor, and its wages are at industry-standard levels,” while its presence would strengthen the city’s tax base “because Chicagoans would shop there – and pay sales taxes – and the city would collect business taxes.” Meanwhile, “its labor force would be employed instead of unemployed and also pay taxes on those earnings and their spending.” But, Sanderson says, “unions would rather have poor people stare at vacant lots than a Walmart store.” Other Walmart defenders have pointed out that the retailer doesn’t close local businesses–local consumers do, when they prefer Walmart to the competition.

Whether the October 7th meeting will have ended with a definitive vote is hard to predict. Jobs or Else met this weekend to pre­­pare their appeal, and SOUL announced a protest of their own at City Hall. But many speculated that the July delay was largely intended to buy peace from union leaders as the Olympics decision approached. With the bid resolved, it’s entirely possible that resolution awaits Walmart, too.

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