During a recent visit to Chicago to speak out on behalf of Wal-Mart, former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young took the city’s elected black leadership to task for supporting the notion of a "big-box" ordinance — one that, in requiring the largest retailers to increase wages to $10 an hour, would result in their bypassing struggling areas of the city and taking their business to the suburbs, along with tax revenues and job opportunities.

It was nice having someone with Young’s stature chime in on the right side of the issue, but his words only underscored the resounding statement Chicagoans made a few months ago. In January, an astounding turnout of 25,000 people applied for 350 jobs at a new Wal-Mart just across the city line in Evergreen Park — not far from where a store would have been built at 83rd and Stewart had not the City Council in its infinite wisdom put the kibosh on it. If the big-box ordinance passes — it was slated to be voted on Wednesday — we can expect more swarms of Chicagoans descending on suburban stores for jobs, and more money that might have paid for crucial city services and programs going elsewhere.

Wal-Mart says it will cancel plans to build up to 20 stores in Chicago over the next five years. Target threatens to call off construction of three South Side stores and suggests it might close existing stores in the city. Lamenting the potential loss of 8,000 jobs (not to mention the loss of business to Wal-Mart stores outside of Chicago, where city residents spent more than $530 million last year), Mayor Richard M. Daley opposes the ordinance. But under intense pressure from powerful unions, the City Council may approve it.

The pro-ordinance camp says it is fighting the good fight for working men and women. On paper, their cause may sound just. But how can you grandstand for higher wages when it means denying jobs for so many people earning no wages at all? People in poor neighborhoods who, denied opportunities to support themselves and their families, become trapped in a sad cycle of unemployment, crime and prison. As it is, most Wal-Mart employees, says a company spokesman, make nearly $11 an hour, $4.50 more than Illinois’ minimum wage and more than twice the federal minimum.

Wal-Mart is hardly a pure embodiment of corporate virtue. It has been rightly taken to task for its failure to provide health benefits and came under harsh criticism for its treatment of overnight janitorial workers. But in moral as well as economic terms, rejecting the life support it offers struggling communities is wrong. And as a federal court affirmed last week in striking down a Maryland law requiring superstores to pay for health care with payroll and tax money, it’s folly to establish different standards for stores of different sizes and in different cities and states.

— Chicago Sun-Times Media Group

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