Joining fight against Wal-mart leads to discovery of inner workings of city politics

by Sophie Johnson – Chicago, Illinois

I thought I would be all for Chicago’s “big-box” minimum wage ordinance. It seemed pretty black and white to me: If an alderman voted yes on the issue he was standing behind the working man, the little man, the suffering, the poor. If he voted no, he was greedy, money-hungry, and would gladly sell his soul to Wal-Mart for a sliver of their annual profits. Obviously.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The minimum wage “big-box” ordinance, vetoed by Mayor Richard Daley on Sept. 10 and ultimately defeated by the City Council on Sept. 14, was the kind of ordinance that the typical Whitman student could definitely get behind. The measure would have mandated a living wage of $13 an hour (plus benefits) for employees working in stores with 90,000 square feet or more operated by companies with at least $1 billion a year in sales by 2010. In other words, it was like a personal invitation for big, evil corporations (mainly Wal-Mart) to stay out of the city of Chicago. Sounds good, right?

I thought so. Over the summer I looked into all the hype and rented the successful documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” Now, I always knew Wal-Mart was no good. I knew they were driving small business owners out of work, their employee benefits were horrifically minimal, and they were using slave labor in China to manufacture much of their merchandise. But I had no idea about the extent of the atrocity of these practices.

There isn’t space here to list the amount of money this corporation costs workers and taxpayers, or to detail the unprecedented procedures in terms of health care, benefits and basic civil rights denied to employees. All the facts and figures are listed on the documentary’s Web site, and to read them will quite frankly make you sick to your stomach.

The measure, which was passed by the City Council when it was first put on the table, would keep Wal-Mart out. Furthermore, it would jeopardize the city’s relationships with other big-box stores (most notably Target) that exercise similarly shady practices. When I first read about it I thought, “Finally, justice,” and breathed a big, liberal sigh of relief.

It didn’t last for long, of course. In his first veto in 17 years as mayor, Daley expressed his concern that denying the entry of big-box retailers into Chicago would put a plug on job opportunities in neighborhoods that especially needed them. He further cited the sales tax revenue from these retailers that is critical to making the city work.

Well, I thought the mayor was stupid. Really, his reasons weren’t very convincing to me. So when I went to the city council meeting last Wednesday, I wanted desperately to stand with the swarms of union workers protesting rather than meet the mayor with the other students in my program.

But meet the mayor I did. The students in my group (all generally in favor of the ordinance) were allowed to ask questions, and a slew of criticisms came up for Daley to respond to. I thought his answers were contrived and shallow and he almost always avoided the question at hand completely. I guess that’s what politicians are supposed to do.

Shortly I realized another inherent truth about politics: city council meetings are tediously dull. For three bathroomless hours we had to sit there and hear various men in suits rattle on and on about facts and figures that ostensibly had no relevance, while we waited for the issue on everyone’s mind to come to the floor. Finally, someone brought it up.

It was Alderman Joe Moore, the notoriously inarticulate and hugely progressive alderman who had come up with the measure in the first place. He re-distributed a copy of it and proposed that it be reconsidered.

We all knew it would be ultimately vetoed. Three aldermen publicly voiced their intentions to switch their initial vote, which would push the measure into oblivion for good. I hated the mayor, I hated the three aldermen, I hated Joe Moore for being so tongue-tied all the time. In general, I hated that politics always seemed to work this way. I was convinced that I lived not in the land of the free, but the land of the corrupt.

The debate lasted two and a half hours, and by the end, I had changed my mind.

The aldermen against the ordinance had surprisingly intelligent things to say. One woman spoke for an incredibly poor neighborhood in which a Wal-Mart store had shown interest. She argued that she knew it wasn’t the best option, but that the neighborhood truly did need the jobs, and there was nowhere else to get them.

Another man owned a small business, but was nevertheless voting against the ordinance because he could not afford to pay his workers $13 an hour, and he knew they would flock to places that could if the ordinance passed.

Most convincing, though, were the arguments that the ordinance was good-intentioned, but poorly-constructed. A living wage should be a human right. It should be a statewide law. It should not be required only of Wal-Mart and Target, but of McDonald’s and Walgreens, too. The fight can be bigger, can attract more attention, can do even more.

I still don’t think highly of the mayor’s decision. I still poo-poo the aldermen that voted against the big-box ordinance. A measure like this could have been revolutionary in a city like Chicago. It could have said to the rest of the country, “The city of Chicago is going to protect its working class citizens at all costs.” In my opinion, the arguments in favor far outweigh those against.

That, however, is not what I took away from the experience. I genuinely believe that the majority of the aldermen that voted against the measure were good-intentioned. I know that sounds naïve, but you had to be there and hear them talk. I could see the other side of the coin, and not from the perspective of the unabashedly rich, either. These matters truly do come in shades of gray.

Yes, there is corruption in this nation’s government. It’s in D.C., in New York, in Chicago, and even in Portland. Yes, there are people in power that couldn’t care less about the working class citizen. The point is that the other kind of person— the good kind— exists in spades. The matter is to never give up the fight, whatever it may be for. We do have power. Our voices are indestructible.

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