Thursday, September 14, 2006

Big Box Living Wage Requiem

Predictably, El Potentate was able to wrangle enough votes to make his veto of the big-box wage ordinance stand. Opponents, such as Mike Doyle at chicagocarless are happy about the decision. As I’ve said all along, I am a supporter of the ordinance because there is enough economic evidence and theory to make the possibility that it could work as advertised and would not have the nightmare scenario of having to travel to Bolingbrook for jobs and cheap designer clothes. What is most interesting to me is how it reveals the desperate machinations of a threatened powerful mayor and how cynical and low he is willing to go to prevent the emergence of an independent political movement in the city of Chicago.

I had little hope that the veto proof majority would hold. Daley and the big box stores, while not sitting atop a vast and omnipotent political machine like his father did, still have formidable tools of persuasion at their disposal. Two of the defectors, quoted in the New York Times, represent the power of those tools. Geogre Cardenas, who represents the eastern portion of Little Village, said he had to consider all the good the mayor had done in his ward. In plainspeak, the mayor reminded Cardenas that he was put into power by the Daley controlled HDO (Hired Truck anyone?) and that if wanted to continue as alderman, let alone run for higher office, he’d better play ball. Shirley Coleman, a South Side African-American said she changed her vote because one of the retailers offered a store in her ward. I’m willing to wager the triple digit figures left in my checking account that campaign donations were involved, at least implicitly. As previously reported here, Emma Mitts, the West Side Alderwoman who led the opposition, received $6,000 in 6 months from Wal-Mart after a store was opened in her ward. That may not seem like a lot of money in the million dollar Senate race cycle, but for an alderman representing a cash-strapped district, it’s pirate’s booty.

But what is most detestable is Daley’s “playing of the race card.” I need to bullet point or number my points because his claim that the unions didn’t start complaining until big box stores opened in black and poor neighborhoods is ludicrous on multiple levels.

First, Daley’s got his movement history wrong. The ordinance was the culmination of months and years of hard organizing by UNITE-HERE and SEIU local chapters. Like any bill, you don’t introduce it until it has a good chance of passing. That couldn’t happen until serious organizing and advocacy efforts accomplished their mission. The move towards living wage laws on the local level is a recent strategy that was developed independently of the co-incidence of the geographical locations of Wal-Marts in the city of Chicago.

Second, Daley is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black here. UNITE-HERE and SEIU locals in Chicago are some of the most diverse and inclusive unions in the country, if not the world (in terms of members of color). The racist, exclusionary unions are the ones that have been in the Daley family’s corner since the 50s: the craft and trade unions.

Third, if this is true, then why was the black caucus spilt on the bill? Why were grassroots black leaders for the ordinance? I know for a fact that many of the black pastors who Daley trots out like a Greek chorus when it’s convenient are pastors of absentee churches: their parishioners do not actually live in the neighborhoods the churches are in. Meaning: they don’t have a whole lot of credibility when it comes to representing poor blacks on the South and West sides. Regardless of that inconvenient fact, the fact that there is debate across the spectrum of black Chicago makes his race-baiting laugable.

Fourth, Daley (and unfortunately other supporters as well) sounded like Bull Connor in his blaming of “outside agitators.” Yes national attention was drawn to this debate. No, Ald. Moore does not live on the South or West Side. Yes, ACORN bused in people from out of state, but it does that for many campaigns (which is why ACORN is as controversial among community activist as it is among right-wing big city mayors). But Alderman Ed Smith is from the West Side. Alderman Burnett is too. Give up the canard of outside agitators, please.

Mr. Daley also knows this is not about economic development in black neighborhoods. It’s about power, plain and simple. Mr. Daley does not want to cede any to an activist city council. Wal-Mart and Target do not want to cede any to workers. Using poor blacks as pawns in their political games is execrable.

1 comment:

Mike Doyle said...

Sometimes a vote is just a vote, and sometimes a store is just a store. I stand behind the comments on my blog: Target and Walmart are good ideas for disadvantaged communities on the south and west sides, no matter what they pay. Let them get here first, and then try to get them to pay higher wages.

Beating them about the head with the issue now, before they've even built stores in those neighborhoods yet, will only make them stay away, as they proved they would do when they (and Lowe's) put all their Chicago stores on hold. And then those disadvantaged neighborhoods will be out of luck.

Better residents in those areas have no jobs at all than low-paying ones? That's the message of this bone-headed bill's supporters: earn what you should be worth or be jobless? In my book, that's quite a high-minded message coming, as it does, from people who already have their jobs of choice.

The kitchen-sink approach is generally the approach that fails miserably--as proven by the mayoral veto. Incrementalism would be a better strategy here. Let the big-boxes come and build, and then negotiate wages with them. It's not as sexy as an approach as bluntly pointing a political shotgun at them, but it's one that won't have them running in the other direction, either.

Unfortunately, in these past few myopic months of debate, for supporters of the now-defunct law seeing the bigger picture hasn't been as much of a forte as has been spitting hubris and indignation squarely into the political wind.