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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Walmart, the Olympics, and the Chicago Way

Two local stories I have recently been covering, the Olympics and Walmart's proposal to put a store in the Chatham neighborhood, have finally crossed over and affected each other. Yesterday, Alderman Richard Mell (the father in law of former Governor Rod Blagojevich) decided to move the decision on Walmart's proposal from his own Rules Committee to the Finance Commitee which is run by Alderman Ed Burke. The City Council is ready to break until September. The Internation Olympic Committee will make its final decision for 2016 on October 2nd. Alderman Burke characterized to the Chicago Sun Times the chances of a vote on this matter prior to October 2nd this way.

I doubt that it will.

Alderman Burke also made it plainly clear what the problem with the proposal is.

Chicago is a strong union town...They can build 14 stores here. All they have to do is make a commitment to the rights of working men and women in Chicago to organize.

Walmart, as I've pointed out, is committed to providing 500 UNION jobs to build the store. Walmart, however, resists unionizing its store employees. Of course, this whole thing has been much more about perception than reality from the beginning. The unions are a critical part of Daley's Olympic coalition and he's been able to keep labor peace in preparation for the bid vote. Wal-Mart's approval would jeopardize all that and create unneeded chaos in anticipation of the vote.

Meanwhile, a poll conducted on July 27th found that not only did nearly 80% of residents favor the Walmart but it was favored handily in each and ever ward, including those run by Mell and Burke. In fact, the worst performing ward was the 37th which had Walmart favored 57-35, and that's the ward where this proposal fared worst. (incidentally Burke's ward favored Walmart 7014 and in Mell's ward Walmart was favored 62-25) That should put some context on Alderman Burke's statement that this is "union" town. The results show that the folks want the jobs, union or not, and they want the cheap groceries, clothes, and other retail items that the Walmart store would sell.

What Alderman Burke is really saying is that this is a union City Council. There's no doubt about that. In other words, what Burke, Mell, and Daley are really saying is that in order to play ball with them you must be ready to unionize. The fact that the building a 150000 square foot superstore on any area that is now dirt is economically stimulative by any measure is beside the point. The politicians of this city have their allies and those allies are against Walmart. That's really all that matters. This isn't about good policy, good economics, or listening to the people. Instead, it's about pleasing a constituency even if that constituency represents a 20% minority of all the citizens of the city.

If you read the tea leaves though, this is also the most cynical of political stunts. Walmart will get its Chatham location later or sooner, mostly later, but they'll get it. There's too much media attention and there's too much public demand for it. The council will just stall and delay long enough to appease their major constituency, the unions. More than that, they'll stall them long enough for the IOC to have its vote. Once Chicago is chosen in 2016 then the unionize can stomp and shout and it won't matter because the city has already been chosen. That's really what this is all about. This Walmart proposal threatens a major player in the Olympic bid and so their proposal must be delayed long enough for the Olympic bid to be decided. After that, the politicians will likely throw the unions under the bus in favor of public opinion. The politicians will eventually do the right thing, but first the IOC must vote on the Olympic bid. Welcome to the Chicago way.

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