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Chicago Approves Living Wage Over Objections of Mayor, Wal Mart

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The Chicago City Council has approved a measure requiring large retailers to pay employees a living wage — making Chicago the largest city with such a rule. The vote passed over the strong lobbying of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the retail giant Wal-Mart. We speak to a community organizer and a Chicago city Alderman who backed the campaign. [includes rush transcript]

On Wednesday, Chicago’s City Council approved a groundbreaking measure requiring large retailers to pay employees a living wage. Retailers with over $1 billion dollars in sales will be required to pay workers at least ten dollars an hour plus three dollars in benefits by the year 2010. The vote makes Chicago the largest city with such a rule.

The measure passed 35 to14 despite opposition from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and threats from retail giants like Wal-Mart and Target that it would focus its attention on suburban locations if the measure was approved.

The passage of the Chicago ordinance comes a week after a Federal judge struck down a measure in Maryland that would have forced Wal-Mart to pay more for health care for its employees. It also comes on the heels of Congress’s rejection earlier this month of a proposal to increase the Federal minimum wage from the present five dollars and fifteen cents an hour.

We speak with Alderman Joe Moore, the chief sponsor of the measure, and Shiren Rattigan, a field organizer with the community organization ACORN that campaigned for the bill.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association declined to be on the program — so did a reprentative from Wal-Mart. However Wal-Mart did send us a statement that reads in part: “This vote sends a message that Chicago is closed for business, closed for development and closed for job creation.”

  • Alderman Joe Moore. Chicago city alderman and chief sponsor of the measure.
  • Shiren Rattigan. Community organizer with ACORN.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two guests join us now in Chicago, Alderman Joe Moore, chief sponsor of the measure, and Shiren Rattigan, a field organizer with the community group ACORN, that campaigned for the bill. I’d also like to mention we invited a representative from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association to join us, but they declined our request. We also invited Wal-Mart on to join in this discussion. Wal-Mart did send us a statement that read in part, quote, “This vote sends a message that Chicago is closed for business, closed for development, and closed for job creation.” Alderman Joe Moore, your response?

JOE MOORE: Well, it’s great to be here, and last Wednesday, Chicago’s City Council gave hope to over 10,000 employees of these big box retailers, hope for a better future. It is absolutely unconscionable that you can work a full day at a job, try to play by the rules, and yet still be in poverty. And what this ordinance is designed to do is to lift these employees out of poverty and give them a hope for a better future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Shiren Rattigan, could you talk about the campaign that you developed in Chicago to be able to pass this legislation?

SHIREN RATTIGAN: Absolutely. We were in the field, we were talking to communities and just wondering what their consensus was and allowing them, giving them the opportunity to get in touch with their local officials. So it was amazing to see the response from people. They were really excited to find out what was going on. A lot of people would come to us and ask us what’s going on, and can they get involved. So, it was overwhelming. It was a good time.

AMY GOODMAN: But there were a lot of forces arrayed against you. Can you talk about how this began? I mean, this is definitely precedent-setting in the country, the largest city to pass a living wage ordinance.

SHIREN RATTIGAN: Absolutely. There were a lot of oppositions. There were people from churches, community groups that got together, and a lot of times when we would go to these places and find out why — you know, why they’re opposing, just for, you know, our own information, a lot of people were told that they were going to get jobs coming to the rallies. A lot of people were told they would be paid to come to the rallies, so it was interesting to talk to the people that were against the big box living wage, because they had no idea what was going on. And once we actually sat down and got to know people that were opposing us and told them what the ordinance actually was about, they were surprised and felt really betrayed and used.

JOE MOORE: Well, you know, Wal-Mart just poured literally millions of dollars.


JOE MOORE: We had the newspaper editorial boards, the Retail Merchants Association, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and Wal-Mart that was backed by large full-page ads, plus organizing some of the ministers on the city’s South and West Sides, convincing them that somehow this would end up being a job loser.

Well, the bottom line is the experience of Santa Fe, New Mexico and San Francisco, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., all of which have passed living wage ordinances where the living wage is higher than the respective state minimum wages or the federal minimum wage, is that, in fact, the opposite has been true. There has been greater job creation, greater economic growth, because when you give people a little bit additional dollars in order to survive, they spend that money in the local pharmacies and the local grocery stores and the other local businesses, thereby putting more dollars in the local economy and creating more jobs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Alderman Moore, didn’t the companies also try to make special appeals to the Black community and Black leaders? Could you talk about that a little bit?

JOE MOORE: Yes, there was a real concerted and really quite frankly appalling effort to try to divide and conquer the African American community, to make this a racial issue. Fortunately, people didn’t fall into that trap, and this ordinance had support across the board in the City Council. From every region of the city, African American aldermen, Hispanic aldermen, White aldermen, joined together in support of this ordinance, and this was also backed by polls, objective polls, done in the city that showed overwhelming support among the populace on the North Side, the South Side, and the West Side of the city of Chicago, across all racial and economic boundaries. This is absolutely a very popular ordinance, and it’s popular because people realize that the federal government is not going to do anything, at least in the near future, to raise the minimum wage, and it’s absolutely appalling that it’s as low as it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Moore, why was the Mayor, Mayor Richard Daley, opposed?

JOE MOORE: Well, the Mayor is concerned about — he bought the arguments about the job loss. He is a conservative Democrat. I’m sure his opposition was sincere, but quite frankly, he was wrong on this issue. I urged him to look at the experience of other cities to see that this has not been bad economically for the other cities that have adopted living wages and, in fact, has been very good and has helped in the long run create more jobs and more economic opportunity for people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Shiren Rattigan, ACORN has been conducting this campaign with other groups around the country on the living wage bill, and while the Republicans in Congress have previously vetoed a raise to the minimum wage, there are indications now, at least a report in the New York Times today, that they may be reconsidering that and that moderate Republicans may get a vote in the House — bring it to the floor, at least — for an actual vote on raising the federal minimum wage. How big an issue has this become nationwide in working class communities?

SHIREN RATTIGAN: Well, I think that the federal minimum wage is — you would have to have two jobs in order to sustain yourself. That, of course, should be raised, and I also think on the state level, because each state has their own needs, the minimum wage should be raised, as well. It’s ridiculous to say that $5.15 is enough to sustain a family. Even yourself, you would make under poverty, below the poverty line, and so what I think really what this ordinance and a living wage suggests is that you need enough money in order to sustain yourself, in order to have the things you need in life, to afford gas, and especially I know gas prices have been talked about a lot, and we have been discussing that a lot amongst each other, but in order to fill up your car, you would have to almost virtually work a full day, and if that’s your transportation source, then a lot of your income is going towards gas for your car even.

AMY GOODMAN: Shiren, I wanted to ask you a question about Wal-Mart’s comment that — it said that this means the vote sends a message that Chicago is closed for business, closed for development, closed for job creation, and this whole division of the Black community, and how you, as an organizer, dealt with this. Wal-Mart warning it would focus its attention on suburban locations if the measure was approved and, as the alderman was saying, dividing the Black leadership with the box stores, saying, like Target, we will build stores in Black communities. It will give jobs, and on the other hand, now saying that they’re going to move to the suburbs. Do you believe this?

SHIREN RATTIGAN: Oh, no, not at all. The suburbs are saturated. They’re so filled with — what they need to do is, they want to increase profit, and if you stick a Wal-Mart right next to another Wal-Mart, you’re just going to divide the profits. They need Chicago. They absolutely need Chicago. The largest grossing Target in the United States is on Allston, on Allston in Chicago, so they know the money is here. That is just — for me, I think it’s just a ploy to get us to accept slave wages, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: But you won.

SHIREN RATTIGAN: So I don’t believe that at all.

JOE MOORE: The big box retailers have saturated the suburban markets and the retail markets. In order to remain profitable, they have to expand, and the urban core provides a wonderful opportunity for all these big box retailers. We have a Target store in the city of Chicago that is the most profitable Target anywhere in the nation. You know, again, another appalling argument on the part of Wal-Mart, in particular, and that is that —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

JOE MOORE: — they’re not going to move into the African American community. Well, where have they been for the last 20 years, 30 years, when there hasn’t been a living wage and they’ve ignored that community? I say that it’s time to stand up and make sure that everyone has a living wage.


AMY GOODMAN: Joe Moore and Shiren Rattigan, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, alderman and organizer with ACORN.

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