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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.

Old tricks at Wal-Mart

A federal appeals court in San Francisco voted 6-to-5 to affirm certification of the largest gender discrimination lawsuit in the nation’s history, with retail behemoth Wal-Mart as defendant.

Wal-Mart had argued that “conventional rules of class action suits should not apply because each outlet operates as an independent business,” AP reports.

It’s not the first time the company has take this approach, as we noted here last year.  When President John Kennedy persuaded Congress to extend the minimum wage law to retail workers, businesses with annual sales below $250,000 were exempted.  Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton promptly divided his stores into individual companies.

A federal court eventually ruled this was “simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage,” as Harold Myerson recounted in the American Prospect.

Now Wal-Mart argues there’s no company-wide policy of discrimination against women.  But given the pattern of lawsuits charging wage-and-hour violations across the country – Wal-Mart has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements – and the centrally-directed attacks and firings anytime labor organizers show up, it’s certainly worth a good hard look.

Tax Day: Where’s Walmart?

Union workers and community groups plan a Tax Day rally to highlight tax loopholes for Walmart tomorrow (Thursday, April 15) at 5 p.m. at the U.S. Post Office at Canal and Harrison.

Walmart employees on Medicaid rolls in Illinois cost the state over $2 million a year, said Kristen Ryan of UFCW Local 881.  Walmart is the largest company on the state’s list of employers with 50 or more employees receiving Medicaid.

In 2006 the Chicago Tribune reported that 1,132 Walmart employees received Medicaid in Illinois, costing the state $2.5 million a year.

Only half of Walmart’s employees qualify for or can afford the health insurance offered by the company; critics say high premiums and high deductibles make it unaffordable for many employees.  And in addition to long waiting periods to qualify, work schedules with reduced hours often prevent Walmart employees from qualifying.

In 2004 a report by staff of  the U.S. House Committee on Education (pdf) estimated that a single Walmart store with 200 employees costs taxpayers over $400,000 a year in federal public assistance programs.

Ryan also cited large sales and property tax rebates associated with Walmart developments.  As Newstips reported in 2007 and 2008, Illinois leads the nation by a wide margin in public subsidies for Walmart, with Good Jobs First identifying $153 million in state and local subsidies — including $41 million in sales tax rebates at 11 Illinois Walmart stores between 1998 and 2008.

“With the state’s budget crisis, that money could be put to good use for actual services for Illinois taxpayers,” said Ryan.

Sick days at Wal-Mart

A demonstration outside Chicago’s Wal-Mart store (4650 W. North) today at 5 p.m. is part of a national campaign targetting the corporation’s “irresponsible sick leave policy” which increases risks to public health.

The Demerit Wal-Mart campaign by Wake Up Wal-Mart and allies highlights the revelation by the New York Times last fall that Wal-Mart gives demerits that can lead to termination to employees who use paid sick days.

The coalition is calling on Wal-Mart to give its employees the right to stay home when they are sick – and to follow government recommendations to let flu epidemic victims stay home without being punished.

Today’s demonstration is sponsored by UFCW Local 881 and backed by the Good Jobs Chicago coalition.

Walmart in polls and at the polls

[UPDATED]  Again with the polls — Walmart has a full-page ad in the paper today touting three polls showing over 70 percent support for a Walmart on the South Side.

Of course, the next question is not asked.  It’s this:  do you think Walmart and other big businesses should pay a living wage?

In fact, as Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative reminds us, when voters were asked the followup question, they responded overwhelmingly in the affirmative.

In voter referendums in 300 precincts during the campaign for a living wage ordinance in 2005 and 2006, voters supported a requirement that big box stores pay a living wage by margins in the 80 percent range.  Patel points out that support for the ordinance was strongest in African American precincts.

In 2007, when the living wage ordinance was a major issue in a number of aldermanic elections, supporters of the ordinance carried the day by a wide margin.

Those are the polls the politicians care about – and that’s why, for all the outrage of editorial boards and columnists demanding full deference to the world’s largest corporation, there’s a limit on what Walmart can do in Chicago.

Even Mayor Daley recognizes it, so far at least, declining to approve the 83rd Street Walmart without Council backing.  And whenever an amended redevelopment agreement for the site is brought forward, the Good Jobs Chicago coalition intends to ensure that alderman get to vote on adding a community benefits agreement guaranteeing decent wages and benefits, and local hiring and investment.  And all these people can count votes.

Good Jobs Chicago has been canvassing the 9th and 21st wards and reports residents are responsive to their message.

“People hear only one side of the story – that a Walmart job is better than no job,” said Latrell Smith, an organizer with Action Now.  “When they hear the other side, it hits them that $8 an hour won’t begin to cover basic necessities or get people off public assistance.  Almost everyone we talked to agreed it’s a good thing to set reasonable standards for the ‘big boxes.'”

Patel applauded Ald. Edward Burke’s proposal to require a living wage of companies receiving city subsidies (withdrawn Monday after business leaders objected), noting similar measures have been passed in Denver and Pittsburgh. “It’s a great way to make sure development is creating good jobs,” she said.

Judging from polls, the ones where voters vote, Chicagoans would tend to agree.

Walmart warehouse workers charge wage theft

Workers at a huge Walmart warehouse south of Joliet are charging their subcontractor with wage theft.

Joined by supporters and attorneys, they’ll announce the filing of a class-action lawsuit against warehouse contractors at an event outside Chicago’s Walmart, 4650 W. North, tomorrow (Thursday, December 10) at 11:30 a.m.

The lawsuit, filed by the Working Hands Legal Clinic under the Day Laborer Services Act, targets Select Remedy, the staffing agency at the warehouse, and Schneider Logistics, which manages the facility, located in Elwood, Illinois.

The class action would cover about 300 workers at the Walmart warehouse and thousands of additional Select Remedies employees in the Chicago area, an organizer said.

The lawsuit charges that Select Remedies split workers’ paychecks in order to evade overtime laws and that warehouse workers have not been paid in full for hours worked.

Workers say Walmart, which owns the warehouse and whose products are shipped there, is ultimately reponsible.

“We hold Wal-Mart responsible for what has happened to us,” said Ruben Bautista, a plaintiff in the suit. “They control what happens in their warehouse.”

Said Bautista:  “Wal-Mart is the richest company in the world, but the people who distribute their products are treated like slaves.”

The Walmart warehouse workers are supported by Warehouse Workers for Justice, a new workers center founded by United Electrical Workers and the Chicago Workers Collaborative.  Workers centers mobilize community support to win protection from exploitation for vulnerable workforces, including immigrants and temporary workers (see Newstips 7-13-05).

“We’ve been getting calls for years from warehouse workers, especially in the southwest suburban area,” said Mark Meinster of UE.   The warehouse workers center began conducting workers rights workshops in churches around Joliet last summer, and that’s where Walmart warehouse workers approached them, he said.

With train lines converging here as well as the third largest container port in the world, Chicago is a major center of the increasingly global distribution and supply chain.  And with hundreds of new distribution centers opening along I-55 (with an estimated half billion square feet of warehouse space), Chicago has one of the biggest concentrations of warehouse workers in the world, Meinster said.

“The problem is, 70 percent of the workers are temps,” he said.  They work for the minimum wage or little more, they have no health care, no sick pay or holidays, very little job security — and often little recourse to abuses on the job.

Often arrangements with contrators and subcontractors provide legal insulation for companies operating warehouses – though Meinster points out that the Day Labor Services Act allows workers to sue client companies.

Town hall on South Side Wal-Mart

A town hall meeting on the proposed Wal-Mart at 83rd and Stewart takes place Saturday and will feature chief proponent Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) along with Ald. Fredrenna Lyle (6th); Elce Redmond of the South Austin Community Coalition, which pushed unsuccessfully for a community benefits agreement for the West Side Wal-Mart; and Rev. Brook Vance of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.

SOUL is part of the Good Jobs Chicago Coalition, which recently proposed a standard for major retailers including living wage levels, health benefits, and workers rights.

Wal-Mart has reportedly been invited to send a representative, too.

It’s sponsored by the Greater Chatham Alliance along with other neighborhood groups, Saturday, November 7, 12 noon, at St. James Lutheran Church, 80th and Michigan.  Topics will include pros and cons of a new Wal-Mart, potential impact on neighboring businesses, and alternative economic development strategies.

Washington and Wal-Mart

At Mechanics, Ramsin Canon looks into Laura Washington’s recent writings attacking Chicago unions for opposing jobs in the black community (meaning Wal-Mart jobs).

“In Laura Washington’s world, is the choice only between food deserts and terrible working conditions for working people of color? Can’t we eliminate food deserts without making the standard of living even worse for working class people?”

Washington’s current piece presents Republican candidates in search of black votes; her earlier piece relied on data from the Chamber of Commerce.  There might be other sources of information worth checking into.

Earlier we highlighted a report by In These Times (where Washington is a columnist) noting judgments by the NLRB and Human Rights Watch that Wal-Mart regularly and systematically violates the legal and human rights of its employees.  And reviewing  the company’s long history of law-breaking, we cited a report that after Wal-Mart moved into southern California and forced groceries there into a race to the bottom, the proportion of grocery workers in the region who had health benefits dropped from 97 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2007.

Washington might want to check with South Side faith leaders who joined Grassroots Collaborative this summer in calling for standards for large retailers.  And she might want to check with food justice activist LaDonna Redmond, who recently opened an organic grocery in Englewood; she stressed the importance of local ownership when she talked with Newstips in June.

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