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Don’t fear 15

With fast-food and retailer workers striking in 58 cities Thursday — a dramatic increase over the seven cities where similar actions took place last month — calling for a $15-an-hour wage, here’s an interesting historical note:

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King spoke at the March on Washington, one of the demands was a minimum wage increase from $1.15 to $2 an hour.  That would be just over $15 in today’s dollars.

In case we’re tempted to get carried away with this “dream,” the Chicago Tribune offers us University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson’s advice: “Don’t fight for 15.”

All in all, it’s a pretty thorough demonstration of how far the dismal science can stray from any connection with reality.

First of all, he warns that if workers become too expensive, they risk being replaced by automation.  In fact, though, it’s really hard to imagine how much more automated McDonald’s could be.   Or to picture computerized checkouts at Macy’s.

He suggests higher wages would mean even higher unemployment rates for minority teens.  That might be a factor if there were a better job market for older people, but there isn’t — especially with an economy that is quickly replacing middle-class jobs with low-wage ones.

More than half of new jobs are in low-wage retail and hospitality sectors, according to the Chicago Political Economy Group.  And the number of college graduates earning minimum wage is steadily growing.

In fact the surge in youth unemployment came before the 2008 crash, while the economy was growing (not very fast), as federal funding for youth jobs was eliminated.  As we noted at the time, it was the first economic recovery in which youth unempoyment increased.  That was without a minimum wage hike, too.

Really poor?

Sanderson then looks into the “claim” that “one can’t live on $8.25 an hour and that someone working full-time would be in poverty.”  Not true at all, he says — a full-time minimum wage worker earns $16,500 a year, a generous $1,000 above the federal poverty level for a two-person household.

Of course, if the full-time worker had two kids rather than one, the family would be at about 20 percent below the poverty level.  Which is not exactly quibbling.

But the reality is that only about one-third of minimum wage workers have full-time jobs.  That’s one of the reasons fast-food workers want a union — so they can negotiate over things like scheduling.

Read the rest of this entry »

Walkouts at Wal-Mart

An unprecedent rolling strike wave hitting Wal-Marts across the country – started in September by warehouse workers in northern Illinois and southern California – will include walkouts by employees at a number of Chicago-area Wal-Marts on “Black Friday” this week, organizers say.

Meanwhile organizers working with temporary staffing agency workers charge Wal-Mart is evading the wage commitment it made when it entered Chicago two years ago by using temps to fill positions in its stores here.  Chicago Workers Collaborative is backing staffing workers in Wal-Mart stores who recently filed a wage theft lawsuit against the company.

Wal-Mart employees who will be striking on Friday will speak at rallies on Wednesday, November 21, from 5 to 8 p.m. at two Chicago Wal-Marts, 570 W. Monroe and 3630 N. Broadway.

Backed by labor and community supporters, Wal-Mart associates will walk out at a number of stores in the area on Friday.  Details aren’t available, but media contact information is hereChicago Jobs With Justice is also organizing support

Small one-day strikes started last week at two California Wal-Marts, with workers later walking out at two stores in Dallas and six in Seattle.


“It’s time for us to speak out,” said Tyrone Robinson, an associate at a Chicago Wal-Mart.  “If we don’t speak out, things are just going to stay the same.”

Robinson is a member of OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart), a nonunion association which has been joined by thousands of Wal-Mart associates in the past year.

“Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world,” Robinson said.  “They could afford to give us decent wages and health insurance and better hours.  They just choose not to.”

One major complaint is the company’s practice of cutting associates’ hours.  Robinson says he was working 40-hour weeks when he started at Wal-Mart a year ago, but since then his hours have been “drastically reduced.”

“I was doing fine,” he said.  “I had a 40-hour week and I was able to keep my own apartment.  I was on my way to getting some kind of vehicle.”  He takes public transit and often has to be at work at 3 a.m.

But since since his hours were cut, “I had to move in with my grandmother,” he said.  “Now I have a two-hour commute.”

There are other immediate concerns.  The company is increasing health premiums by as much as 36 percent following another steep increase last year, and has raised the number of hours needed to qualify for health coverage from 24 to 30 a week.

And after opening for the first time on Thanksgiving evening last year, this year they’re moving the opening time two hours earlier, to 8 p.m.  That’s not welcomed by associates who have to be at the store hours earlier, said Marc Goumbri, a local organizer for OUR Wal-Mart.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Unwrap Chicago’ promotes local holiday shopping

Backed by hundreds of locally-owned small business, Unwrap Chicago is urging Chicagoans to pledge to shift $100 of their holiday shopping to neighborhood businesses and has launched a blog featuring 50 businesses in 50 wards.

City Treasurer Stephanie Neely is hosting a press conference to kick off the campaign on Tuesday, November 20 at 10 a.m. on the 2nd floor of City Hall.

She’ll be joined by Suzanne Keers of Local First Chicago, the small business coalition that sponsors Unwrap Chicago, along with Omar Duque of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Ald. Harry Osterman, cosponsor of a resolution declaring Buy Local Week in Chicago starting Friday, November 23.

Boost city economy

If every family shifted $100 of their holiday shopping to local businesses, it would inject $25 million into the city’s economy, Keers said.

Local businesses recirculate 70 percent more of their revenues back into the local economy, purchasing local goods and services and supporting local charities at much higher rates, studies have shown.

Read the rest of this entry »

Walmart turns 50

A coalition of Walmart workers, community groups, and small businesses is throwing a 50th birthday party for the retail giant.

In that spirit, here’s a story from Walmart’s earliest days (related at length here a few years ago): At the time of Walmart’s founding in July 1962, President John Kennedy passed a law extending the minimum wage to retail workers – with a loophole for companies earning less than $250,000.  Sam Walton promptly divided his stores into individual companies so they could be exempt.

On Saturday, community activists will pass out birthday cupcakes outside the Walmart Express at Presidential Towers, and Walmart workers — employees of local stores who are part of the new OUR Walmart group, along with members of Warehouse Workers for Justice — will tell stories of low wages, unaffordable health coverage, and wage theft.

It takes place a 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 30, at 570 W. Monroe.

“The past 50 years have really not been great for our economy, and Walmart’s growth is not unrelated to that,” said Janel Bailey of Chicago Neighborhoods First, a coalition of labor, community groups, and small business.

“Because they’re such a large employer, their model has had an impact throughout the retail industry and throughout the economy,” said Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs With Justice.  “What they have done to the standard of living of working people has been dramatic and quite harmful.”

With the closing of Walmart departments and stores where employees have voted for union representation, thousands of workers across the country are now coming together in OUR Walmart (it stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart).  It’s a nonunion association, as is Warehouse Workers for Justice.

And because previous efforts to block Walmart’s entry into Chicago failed – the company is pioneering a smaller format, the Neighborhood Market, allowing it to move into properties already zoned commercial without the public oversight required for big box developments, Hurley points out – local activists are focusing on supporting Walmart workers and “reforming” the company.

Food deserts and food stamps

While the company talked about filling “food deserts,” nearly all its Chicago stores are in affluent areas downtown or on the North Side – and its Walmart Express in Chatham is in an area with a thriving business district.

“The food desert talk was a red herring, part of the p.r. push to get into the city,” said Bailey.

“Food deserts are only part of the story,” she said.  “Areas that lack food access also lack access to good jobs.  Food deserts are also living wage deserts.  The problem is that if you’re not paying a living wage, you’re not really solving the problem of access to food.”

Indeed, half of all Walmart employees qualify for food stamps – not a strong sign that access to food is high on the company’s priorities.  (With Walmart now accepting food stamps, Newstips pointed out a couple years ago, “the money paid by taxpayers to supplement Walmart’s low wages can now be spent at Walmart, contributing even further to the Walton family’s riches.”)

On top of that, it’s estimated that $225 million is spent nationally on free and reduced school lunches for children of Walmart employees.

Meanwhile, in recent years Illinois has led the nation in tax subsidies to Walmart.  That’s in addition to providing Medicaid for many of the company’s employees.

In another 50th anniversary event, Interfaith Worker Justice is holding a prayer vigil on Friday, July 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Walmart at 3636 N. Broadway.  The group is calling on the company to mark its anniversary by finding ways to “give back for the sake of the neighborhood.”

A new Walmart

A new Walmart Express is opening Wednesday morning, and a group of Walmart employees and supporters will be there to protest – charging that despite the corporation’s promise of jobs for Chicago, it’s now using temporary agencies to fill positions in stores here.

There’s a rally and press conference Wednesday, May 9 at 6:30 a.m. at 225 W. Chicago.  Speakers include Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition, where Chicago’s first Walmart was built; Suzanne Keers of Local First Chicago, an organization of small business owners; Larry Born of Organization United for Respect at Walmart, a national group of Walmart associates; and Leticia Rodriguez of Warehouse Workers for Justice, which has sued Walmart warehouse operators near Joliet for wage theft.

Development 101: Giordanos, Oreos — and Wal-Mart

People used to get confused when Jim Capraro would deny that a new supermarket in a blighted community — which he’d worked years to open — was a win for economic development. Read the rest of this entry »

City budget eliminates small business support

Representatives of community-based economic developments groups will testify at the City Council’s hearing on the budget tomorrow (Wednesday, November 3, 11 a.m.), urging restoration of their funding in the mayor’s proposed 2011 budget.

The proposed budget entirely eliminates the allocation for its economic development delegate agencies program — $3.4 million, about the size of many individual developer subsidies from the city.  But that funds 112 neighborhood chambers of commerce and other groups that support small businesses in the city’s neighborhoods.

“More than half of the delegate agencies could be in danger of closing without city funding,” said Ellen Shepard of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce.  “And the city has no plans to replace these programs.”

On shoestring budgets, the groups play a key role in nurturing small businesses and neighborhood vitality, helping new businesses get off the ground and existing businesses grow, and helping them access city programs and navigate often-burdensome city regulations.

They offer training programs, marketing initiatives and special events to promote local businesses.  (For a closer look at the work of delegate agencies across the city, see last year’s Newstip.)

When the city offered an amnesty program on fines and fees for business sign permits this year, it was delegate agencies that “went door-to-door and talked to every business that’s out of compliance,” said Kimberly Bares of the Rogers Park Business Alliance.

And although the city pays an outside contractor to administer its Small Business Improvement Fund, it’s the neighborhood groups that hold meetings to inform local businesses about the program and go out to solicit applications, said Bares.  “Without delegate agencies there would be no applications to process,” she said.

They work at a level of efficiency and cost-effectiveness that the city could never replicate on its own, Bares said.  A recent survey of 30 neighborhood economic development groups showed they’d assisted 9,700 businesses and impacted 75,000 jobs, Shepard said.

The groups met with officials of the city’s Department of Community Development this summer and received assurances that they’d recommend full funding in the next budget.

But when the budget came, funding was completely eliminated.  “There was no communication, no warning, no preparation,” said Bares.  “And the aldermen had no idea this was coming.”

The cut comes on top of an 11 percent funding reduction last year (down from a proposed 23 percent reduction) and a 7.5 percent cut the year before.  “The city doesn’t seem to understand the value of our services,” Bares said.

Budget planners are wrong if they think local businesses can step up to support these groups, Bares said.  Among their biggest donors are community banks and realtors, which have been among those hardest hit by the recession.

After objections from aldermen at a recent budget committee hearing, budget officials have said they’re “working on” restoring funds, “but it’s all still very vague,” said Doug Fraser of Alderman Mary Ann Smith’s office.

Using TIF funds

The city is planning to shift funding for 19 delegate agencies that support industrial retention to local TIFs.  “Given that the city’s in a budget crisis and these delegate agencies do TIF-eligible work” including site preparation and job training, “it makes sense to think about using TIF to fund us,” said Mike Holzer of the LEED Council, which has helped bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to the North River Industrial Corridor.

But not all industrial retention groups are located in TIF districts, and those that are often assist businesses outside the district; and not all of the groups’ activities are eligible for TIF funding, Holzer said.  In addition, he points out that TIFs have 23-year lifespans, and many are approaching expiration.

There are also indications that consideration is being given to funding other delegate agencies through TIF.

“They’d have to do some fancy footwork,” said Jacqueline Leavy, former executive director of Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.  Under state law TIF is not supposed to support operating expenses.

She recalls the effort by nonprofit job training groups to get funding under the TIF Works program (see 7-15-03 Newstip); the city argued funding could only go to training groups that were under contract to employers within a TIF district.  On the other hand, the city takes money off the top of TIFs to pay for salaries in the Department of Community Development.

One option would be hiring local nonprofit community development groups to administer TIFs, she said.

Bares points out that one TIF district in Rogers Park is in its last year of existence.

Shifting funding for neighborhood groups to TIF “would be a very complicated and temporary fix to address a tiny portion of the city’s corporate budget,” said Bares.

Andersonville hosts Green Week

Andersonville is bursting with activity in the middle of its Andersonville Green Week celebration, highlighting the ongoing greening of the neighborhood’s small business district.

An array of activities continues through the weekend, with a community block party this Saturday, July 17, from 4 to 7 p.m. on Balmoral between Clark and Ashland.

There are restaurants featuring locally-grown food, workshops and book readings, a range of children’s activities, films, and tours of everything from community gardens to local breweries.

The block party will feature entertainment by local bands, line-dancing, activities for kids, food and a special Green Week organic beer brewed by Hamburger Mary’s, one of eco-Andersonville’s nine certified sustainable businesses.

Green Week is the newest initiative of eco-Andersonville, a sustainability project of the Andersonville Development Corporation, which features a rigorous green business certification program, a streetscape recycling program, and a green building incentive program.  Since Newstips noted the program’s launch in April of 2009, the number of green certified businesses has more than doubled.

Already noted for a thriving business district almost entirely consisting of locally-owned, independent businesses,Andersonville is now emerging as Chicago’s greenest neighborhood and a model urban community, said Nina Newhouser, manager of Green Week.

“We wanted to celebrate what businesses and residents are doing day-in and day-out in this community,” Newhouser said.  “We just reached out to the neighborhood, and the response was amazing.”

Some highlights of Andersonville Green Week:

Tours: a tour of an 1883 farmhouse getting a LEED upgrade (Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m.); and a tour of historic Rosehill Cemetery (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.); a walking tour highlighting Andersonville history (Saturday at 10 a.m.); a tour of two local brewers and a distiller (Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.); an urban trees walking tour (Sunday at 10 a.m.), a community garden walk in West Andersonville (Sunday, 2 p.m.).  Some tours have already sold out.

Kids events: Local author an illustrator Alexandra Gnoske discusses her children’s book, Loui Saves the Planet (Saturday, 11 a.m.) and local author Geraldine Macenski reads from Happy, Healthy Gigi! (11:30 a.m.) at Green Genes, 5111 N. Clark, with the Eco-Storybook Project, an interactive workshop on sustainable life choices for kids at 12 noon; Make Your Own Nature  Book for kids (Saturday, 11 a.m.) at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark); and a kids corner hosted by State Representative Harry Osterman, with face painting, arts and crafts, and yoga, at the block party.

Locally grown food is being featured at In Fine Spirits, 5420 N. Clark, and Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark – and Hamburger Mary’s (5400 N. Clark) features a homebrew competition Thursday night and a showing of film dealing with sustainable agriculture (Saturday at 7 p.m.).

Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark) presents the Chicago premier of the Sundance award-winning film Gasland (Friday, 8 p.m.)

Recycling: Green Gene’s is collecting e-waste and t-shirts for recycling (the t-shirts are used to makepaper) through the week.  There’s also cell phone recycling at Andersonville’s T-Mobile (5358 N. Clark), bicycle recycling by Working Bikes at the block party, and a discussion on Sunday afternoon of a pilot project to turn dog poop into fuel.

Unity Lutheran Church (1212 W. Balmoral) holds a green worship service, concert and open house, Sunday at 10:15 a.m..

There are demonstrations of rain barrels (Saturday, 1 p.m.) and composting (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.) at Green Sky (5737 N. Clark).  Urban Worm Girl demonstrates worm composting Sunday at 1 p.m. (1636 W. Summerdale).

The full schedule is here (pdf).

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