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Wal-Mart “breakthrough” – or hype?

City Hall sources told Fran Spielman that “Wal-Mart has agreed to hold an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with organized labor,” and that got a front page headline suggesting a “Big-Box Breakthrough.”

But in the story, Wal-Mart’s Steven Restivo said company officials “have not made any commitment to meet,” and Jorge Ramirez of the CFL said a scheduled meeting had been called off, and Wal-Mart hadn’t yet rescheduled.

It wasn’t clear who had set up the meeting – or whether Wal-Mart had actually agreed to it in the first place.  The company has been completely consistent in refusing to discuss wages or benefits with anyone, ever.

It was only 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale who thought it was significant, calling the meeting (or the suggestion of a  meeting) a “huge” breakthrough, according to Spielman.

That remains to be seen – as does Beale’s repeated claims that he has the votes to win City Council approval for a Wal-Mart in Pullman.  He said so in February, in March, and in  April, even as he postponed presenting the matter to the Zoning Committee.

It’s worth recalling Beale’s 2007 boast to Mick Dumke that Wal-Mart would open in his ward within a year.

UFCW Local 881 President Ronald Powell issued a statement saying “Wal-Mart has not met nor committed to meet” with labor representatives.  “While we have requested that such a meeting take place, Wal-Mart has previously stated it was not interested,” Powell said.

Noting Wal-Mart’s “long, well-documented history of egregious violations of labor, worker, taxpayer, and human rights,” Powell said Chicago has “a unique opportunity” to require the company to do business differently here.

The union called for “a set of enforceable standards…that ensure living wages, comprehensive and affordable health benefits, [and] workplace rights” covering all big box retailers.  Powell reiterated Local 881’s stance:  “No Wal-Mart expansion in Chicago until Wal-Mart comes to the table to negotiate solid, enforceable wage and benefit standards for their workers.”

Local 881 represents workers at Jewels and Dominick’s groceries, where it’s likely that a new Wal-Mart supercenter would lead to pressure for benefit reductions.  After Wal-Mart moved into southern California in the early 2000s, the proportion of grocery workers with health benefits in that area dropped from 97 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2007, as noted here last year.

It’s hard to say where the Pullman Wal-Mart proposal stands right now, and Beale’s enthusiasm may not be the best guide.  What is clear is that Mayor Daley, hoping to move the proposal forward, is calling on Wal-mart to sit down with its critics, and Wal-Mart is refusing.

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Category: development, labor, retail, Wal-Mart

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