Union leaders say they will bring wage proposal back in February

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By Stephen Franklin
Chicago Tribune , Sep 14 2006
Contact: Stephen Franklin , Tribune Staff Reporter
Their talk was full of the heartbreak of coming so close, and then losing.
Yet among the Chicago union officials and others who had cobbled together a coalition to push for a big-box minimum wage ordinance, there was little mention Wednesday of giving up.

“This issue is not going away,” said Dennis Gannon, head of the more than400,000-member Chicago Federation of Labor. “We are going to address it somehow. If it is in the City Council, fine. If it is in Springfield, fine.This battle isn’t over because the mayor decided to veto something.”

The group’s failure to hold onto the 34 votes needed to override the mayor’s veto was not a surprise. By Wednesday morning, Gannon knew that Mayor Richard Daley had regained the upper hand.

The goal now, Gannon said, would be to re-introduce a similar proposal soon after a new city council is elected in February. The failed proposal would require retail stores with at least 90,000 square feet run by companies with$1 billion or more in annual sales to pay $10 an hour and $3 an hour in fringe benefits by 2010.Indeed, Gannon and others were eager to list the gains their side scored in a battle that drew national attention, led to a show of independence by council members, and the mayor’s first veto in 17 years in office.

“It is hard to see a victory this way, but the fact that the mayor had toveto this shows that this is an emperor who has less and less clothes on,”explained Wade Rathke, chief organizer for Acorn, a community activist group that has taken on Wal-Mart in Chicago and nationally.

Rathke saw another reason for the significance of the showdown that evolved in Chicago over the past few months between Wal-Mart and groups like his.
“It is the biggest direct fight with the company that any of us has been involved,” he said.

While some claim that Wal-Mart is up against some form of opposition in more than 200 communities, Al Norman, who has charted Wal-Mart’s problems for more than a decade for a group called Sprawl-Busters, said the number is closer to 40.
Most of these battles are taking place in small communities, and, he added,unlike Chicago, the most common complaints are not about wages or benefits but zoning and other problems that come with the arrival of a large Wal-Mart.

One group that has taken on the giant retailer across the country is Wake Up Wal-Mart, a small Washington-based organization that was launched last year by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The union shifted to a public relations campaign after a long and costly organizing attempt failed among Wal-Mart workers.

During the summer, the group staged national bus tours touting its grass-roots support. “We’ve always been focused on building a nationalmovement,” said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for the organization. And he saidhe was confident that the effort would not come to a halt in Chicago.

NuWexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, was similarly optimistic that the effort in Chicago would continue. “Mayor Daley’s veto is a political setback,not a legal setback,” said Wexler, whose Washington-based group was set up by the Service Employees International Union.

Wexler ticked off a number of states where there are hopes of putting living wage ordinances on the ballot, and predicted that such efforts would keep Wal-Mart in the public’s attention.

“Wal-Mart has chosen to fight these living wage ordinances, so they have chosen to make themselves a target,” he said.

In Chicago, Elce Redmond, an organizer for the South Austin Coalition Community Council, and an outspoken supporter of the minimum wage ordinance,spoke of his letdown Wednesday after the City Council vote.
“It is just heartbreaking,” he said. “Some people say any job is better than no job. But slavery was full employment.”

Redmond did not accept Daley justification for the need to kill the proposal in order to bring jobs to a community like the one where he works.

“[Daley] doesn’t understand that the whole city has gone condo, that energy costs are going up, and yet wages are decreasing,” Redmond said. “He is saying, `As long you got a job, be happy.’ ”

Nor did U.S. Congressman Danny Davis (D-Chicago) accept the argument that Chicago would lose potential jobs at big-box stores like Wal-Mart if the City Council imposes a higher minimum wage for its workers.

“I don’t think Wal-Mart is going to run away from these big central city markets,” he said. “People who work should get a livable wage at the end of the week so you have enough to pay your rent and send your kids to school.”

The issue may “die for the moment,” he said, but “it will not go away. The labor unions are not going away. The desire of workers to earn a livable wage is not going to go away. And so the two teams who played today will play tomorrow.”