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Shopping Around

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jun 21, 2007 2:00PM

2007_6_wal_mart.jpgAccording to an unnamed "top official," the Sun-Times reported yesterday that Wal-Mart is prepared to build as many as five South Side supercenters in six to twelve months, maybe sooner, but is also scouting sites in neighboring wards in case local aldermen resist. "We're making an active effort to speak with [the local] aldermen. We can't move forward without them. If it is proven in the near future they're not interested — maybe they don't want the controversy or they made commitments to restrict development — we will look for opportunities in adjacent wards. We've been approached by [other] aldermen who are very interested," Roderick Scott, Wal-Mart's regional manager for community affairs, told the Sun-Time's Fran Spielman.

In classic Wal-Mart fashion, the company is preparing to employ its nearly patented strong-arm tactics, which when combined with a divide-and-conquer strategy, especially when employed in urban black communities, is incredibly effective. During the last round of fights in the city council over zoning variances and what kind of retail the city will have in underserved neighborhoods, that divide-and-conquer approach spilled over into the aldermanic races, with both Daley and several now unemployed aldermen singing from Wal-Mart's choir book and calling labor unions in Chicago racist. It's easy for white liberals on the North Side, who have easy access to jobs, public transportation, and inexpensive, high-quality groceries to wring their hands about the cultural effects of Wal-Mart in the city. And it's very hard for an alderman like Anthony Beal, who really does have a ward with very few opportunities for shopping to say no to Wal-Mart. The unfortunate aspect of this entire "debate" is that it pits the middle class against the working class, black against white.

Although some of the new aldermen on the council are trying to play hardball with Wal-Mart (mindful that this issue and its aftershocks were what helped carry them into office in the first place), even a living wage from Wal-Mart isn't good enough. The irony isn't lost on us here at Chicagoist, that among the locations under consideration for what is being touted as a job opportunity for the community is the site of two former steel plants. Perhaps part of the reason that there are no good jobs in those communities (and therefore little economic incentive for more traditional retail options to open for business) is that, in spite of the so-called rebirth of Chicago, there are still vast portions of the city that have been left behind in this new global economy.

Ultimately, labor unions and their membership, community leaders and yes, even the people that live in the neighborhoods that will be affected by Wal-Mart's presence in Chicago have some tough decisions to make in the coming six to twelve months, maybe sooner. Will what's left of the labor movement in Chicago actually be able to do the difficult work of organizing workers and fighting to create better jobs for their members, or will they simply demand social legislation that forces business to behave? Will aldermen in wards that are being targeted by Wal-Mart continue to try and take the easy path to job creation, opening more big boxes owned by faceless corporations that suck money out of a community, putting little more than free calculators for elementary school children back into the community?

As Wal-Mart prepares to launch its latest attack of divide and conquer, we think it's a fair bet that the city council will talk a lot about living wage ordinances and jobs for communities, without actually doing anything about the economic inequities that plague the South and West sides of the city. Perhaps those 50 aldermen should be debating ways to bring more industry back into Chicago, and working to make sure that ward residents in poor communities have better access to good union jobs, working on some of that glorious rebirth that keeps growing vertically downtown, rather than sweeping the floor in a fluorescent outlet for cheap Chinese-made products.

Image via In These Times.