If the shockingly bright fluorescent lights no longer bother you, then you have passed step one of the Wal-Mart challenge. The next steps include accepting that a majority of the products in the store are manufactured and assembled by workers overseas who receive the equivalent of $.25 an hour for their hard labor and understanding that the store is literally taking money away from the community where it’s located. The final step is coming to terms with the fact that the smiling “greeter” who greets you at the door cannot afford to eat three meals a day. Once you have completed the challenge, you are free to shop at any Wal-Mart in the nation and always buy things at low prices (always).
But if you’re like the majority of Americans, you have completely ignored the steps of the challenge and simply relish in the luxury of 24-hour, one-stop shopping with low-priced goods. But thankfully, for the working class of Chicago, city council members have not cheated in the challenge and have taken issue with the final step – they refuse to overlook the underpayment of Wal-Mart’s (and Target’s and Home Depot’s) employees within the city’s limits.
This refusal led city council to pass the “big box” living-wage ordinance last week. Starting next July, the ordinance will require stores that earn more than $1 billion annually and occupy more than 90,000 square feet to pay a minimum of $9.25 per hour and $1.50 per hour in benefits to employees, a huge jump from the $6.50 an hour most “big box” employees make now.
While the ordinance faces an army of opponents, including the mayor of Chicago, as well as threats of lawsuits and concern among employees and consumers of the 40-plus stores it will affect, the valiant move by city council sends an important message to retail giants: Shape up if you want to continue operating in the city and Chicago is “not interested in the creation of low-paying jobs that fail to provide a living wage or adequate healthcare benefits for working families,” as the President of Chicago Federation of Labor said.
However, some aldermen and residents in the city argue that this bold message and daring step forward for employee rights ignores the practical and immediate concerns of employees in the city. They have the legitimate fear that the affected stores will simply pack up and move locations to avoid the wage increase, which would cause many workers to lose their jobs. But what these opponents don’t realize is that not only is it unlikely that all of the stores will move or not be immediately replaced – evidence from other cities with similar legislation shows that corporations often learn to deal with the wage increase and stick around due to demand – but also that what will ultimately be gained from the ordinance is enough to endure this period of loss.
Cities only stand to benefit from such wage boosts because of the increase in payroll and state taxes. They will also benefit by forcing corporations to own up to the significant strain they put on their communities with the construction of each new store. In 2004, the Wal-Mart Corporation received more than $1 billion in local government subsidies to pay construction costs for new stores, and a study at the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Center found that Wal-Mart drives down wages in urban areas, resulting in an annual loss of at least $4.7 billion in earnings for retail workers.
As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed,” “Someday . (the working poor) are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There will be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.” This day is quickly approaching as more and more cities around the country realize that tolerating such unjust working conditions within city limits is unacceptable. Yes, it may result in job losses and stores closing their doors, but, at least the city of Chicago and many others like it are willing to take this risk in order to ensure better working conditions for its city’s employees.
And if this decision by city council kick starts a nationwide movement toward better pay of the unskilled workforce, then it will be worth losing a couple of jobs along the way.
Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.