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In Bronzeville: school closings, violence, Wal-Mart, and TIFs

Two actions protested the closing of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville today — a morning rally highlighting safety issues (and much more), and an afternoon action, which raised larger issues of resources by drawing the connection to a Walmart being built nearby with TIF funds.

About a hundred parents marched from Overton, at 49th and Indiana, to Mollison, at 44th and King  — past four gangs and four drug locations, according to Francis Newman, a parent from Williams Prep, which is also on the school closing list.

The walk also took them past the spot where Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed last week, she noted.

“We’re demanding these schools be kept open and that they get the resources they need,” Newman said.  She said she recently visited Disney Magnet school, which has numerous computers, smart boards, and iPads for children.  “In our school, we can’t get a computer that works,” she said.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”



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