In Chicago, a Fight over Wages for Retail Employees

Chicago passes a city ordinance that would require big retailers like Wal-Mart and Target to pay workers at least $13 an hour in wages and benefits within the next few years.Opponents are calling the measure illegal and planning to sue. Even Chicago's mayor is opposed. But for Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, the main question is whether the ordinance will bring better jobs or chase new ones away.

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The Chicago City Council passed a bill this week that would require big retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, to pay workers nearly double the federal minimum wage. Opponents call the measure discriminatory and plan to fight it. But in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, the fight is chiefly over whether this change would attract or chase away the jobs and economic development so desperately needed.

Chicago public radio's Catrin Einhorn reports.

CATRIN EINHORN reporting:

The living wage ordinance targets the biggest retailers, companies with huge stores and at least $1 billion in annual revenue. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley hasn't signed it into law, and a court challenge is almost certain. But if it does become law, the lowest paid workers at places like Home Depot will start making $9.25 an hour next year. In a few more years, they'd earn $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits.

Leon Finney, Jr. thinks it's a terrible idea.

Mr. LEON FINNEY JR. (President, Community Organization in Chicago's Southside Woodlawn Neighborhood): We are now on what we call East 63rd Street. We have block after block of vacant land and a few abandoned buildings that are boarded up and left.

EINHORN: Finney is president of a community organization in Chicago's Southside Woodlawn neighborhood. He also runs three barbeque joints and a church. And he fears that the new measure sends companies the wrong message.

Mr. FINNEY: You should do nothing to discourage them and everything to encourage them for fear that they won't come. And our fear is that we will have, at this particular point, these vast areas. Look here. What's going to happen to us?

EINHORN: Companies like Wal-Mart and Target say they may now reconsider plans to expand in Chicago. But the measure's supporters say the companies need urban consumers to continue expanding.

Alderman Freddrenna Lyle's ward includes parts of Woodlawn. During city council debate over the measure, she challenged the idea that any jobs are better than no jobs.

Ms. FREDDRENNA LYLE (Alderman, Chicago): People will do anything when they are hungry enough. People will drink anything when they are thirsty enough. They will drink saltwater. But that doesn't mean we as a government should give it to them. People will eat dog food but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote to put that on the daily recommended diet for poor people.

EINHORN: Here in the Westside Austin neighborhood, this debate has real ramifications. Chicago's first Wal-Mart is scheduled to open its doors here late this summer. Mike Resati(ph) manages a nearby dollar store that sells the usual assortment of party supplies, tools, stuffed animals and makeup. Resati fears that the living wage measure would make it impossible to for him to stay in business.

Mr. MIKE RESATI (Manager, Dollar Store): If I want to work for you and you pay me $10, someone else will pay me, like, $6 or $7, for sure I'll go for $10. So everyone around will go and try to get in there.

EINHORN: The Brown family lives just around the corner from the new Wal-Mart and their opinions represent the complexity of the debate. On a muggy late afternoon, 45-year-old Rochelle Brown and her mother sit on plastic chairs on the sidewalk outside their brick home.

Rochelle Brown says she works full-time for the school system caring for Special Ed students. But she's also applied for a part-time job at Wal-Mart and said she'd love to make $10 an hour, but she's willing to work for less.

Ms. ROCHELLE BROWN: You got to do what you got to do to make it, survive. I have kids to take of.

EINHORN: Two kids, she says, and only one salary to support them.

Ms. BROWN: I am a single parent. That's the reason I need a part-time job. If I had a husband, it probably be something different. Or maybe I'll find me one in Wal-Mart.

EINHORN: According to the local alderman's office, more than 10,000 people applied for 450 jobs at the store. If Wal-Mart gets its way, the lowest starting wage will be $7.25 an hour. Brown's mother, Margaret Brown, says that's a reasonable amount to pay young people.

Ms. MARGARET BROWN (Rochelle Brown's Mother): You got a lot of teenagers walking around here. They could, you know, give them jobs and keep them out of trouble. Sometimes you got to just start from the bottom and come up.

EINHORN: But granddaughter Lorecia Davis(ph) says the neighborhood needs jobs that support families.

Ms. LORECIA Davis (Margaret Brown's Granddaughter): Gas is not going down. On a $7.25 salary, how can you afford to keep your rent paid, your light and gas, and keep gas in your car to get to work? You know, that means something is not going to get paid. You know what I'm saying? Which is just like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's time for us to come out of that, you know, rut.

EINHORN: The effort to pass the living wage measure took years and millions of dollars in lobbying. The fight to put it into effect in the nation's third-largest city is likely to be no less complicated.

For NPR News, I'm Catrin Einhorn in Chicago.

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