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8

Volume 3 Issue 2
November 2009

Living Just Enough for City
Life:
Are Southsiders Willing to Take Just Any Wal-Mart Job?
By Dhyia Thompson
I noticed Henry* at the Austin Wal-Mart, store located on Chicago’s west side, as I
watched staff members pull him in different directions to either joke around or seek
work-related advice. It appeared that he was well respected and admired by the
younger associates, so I felt compelled to approach him to ask a simple question,
“Do you enjoy working for Wal-Mart?” And unlike the other 6 associates I previously
asked - who all robotically shouted “Yes”; Henry, a man in his late 50s, paused for a
while, chuckled to himself and said “Yes”.

Henry is just one out the 1.4 million associates Wal-Mart employs in the U.S. -
making it the largest private U.S. employer. Last fiscal year, Wal-Mart earned $401
billion in sales; which is larger than the GNP for even a small industrialized
countries. e retail giant has historically developed stores in rural and suburban
communities, however recently Wal-Mart has shielded its growth plans to
aggressively pursue large urban markets and have successfully opened 2 urban
stores in Los Angeles and Chicago.

While, they’ve achieved some success, other cities, such as New York, Detroit and
D.C. won’t even entertain Wal-Mart’s proposals to develop a store concept within
their city limits. There are two major reasons why Wal-Mart has experienced
massive opposition: jobs & wages and community retail development. This
opposition is currently happening right here on the Southside and the controversy is
heavily centered on jobs and wages
.
Wal-Mart laid quietly dormant until October when the IOC gave Chicago a swift
punch in the gut announcing Rio as their host city for the 2016 Olympics; but they
found the bad news to be an opportune time to reignite their interest in developing
on the south side. Their next proposed location is for a 190,000 sq. ft. urban
supercenter, which includes a full grocer, in the economically challenged
community of Chatham on 83rd and Stewart. The site is a mere 7 miles from our
Bronzeville community and to understand the scaling would be to imagine a retail
destination that could hold 75-100 Agriculture’s and Z & H’s; however without the
benefit of diversity in services and products that small businesses tend to offer
communities.

So what’s the big deal, right? In Chicago we’re suffering through tough economic
times: people need money and people want to save money. Well, the Wal-Mart
store debate boils down to this: jobs versus quality jobs - it’s just that simple.
Alderman Brookins, 21st ward, is advocating for the Wal-Mart in City Council, where
his ordinance is currently sitting in the Finance Committee. According to a blog
posting he made on Huffington Post, he merely states, “the store will create at least
400 new jobs and stimulate economic development.” He wants jobs, but it doesn’t
seem to be transparent to south side residents what Brookins is proposing with
regard to benefits for these Wal-Mart jobs.

On the other hand, Amisha Patel, a representative from the Good Jobs Chicago
Campaign, was very clear on what the group defines as a quality job - jobs that
provide workers with living wages and affordable health insurance. Good Jobs
Chicago is a coalition of residents, business owners, Pastors, and organizations
fighting for quality jobs from big box retailers, such as Wal-Mart. the group feels
there is much room for improvement from big box retailers, as Amisha states,
“existing low wages is not economic development...

we need good jobs so that workers can pay the rent, clothing, etc...and not be
placed in a position to choose between two [necessary] things.”

Henry began working for Wal-Mart in 2007 at $8.40/hour. His disenchantment with
the company developed because Ald. Mitts of Austin and Wal-Mart promised
workers that by 2007 all employees would earn at least $10/hour and receive
quarterly bonuses. Over the 2+years that Henry has been employed at Wal-Mart,
he’s only received $1 in salary raises; bringing him just 60 cents shy of the $10/hour
promised. He’s also only received 3 out of the 12 possible bonuses; his last bonus of
$83 was paid last Spring.

Henry and I sat down over coffee to discuss his monthly expenses in order to
illustrate the difficulty that a full-time Wal-Mart employee has with covering basic
living expenses. Similar to the other Wal-Mart associates I spoke with, Henry
subsidizes his and his child’s healthcare through government programs -- his wife is
uninsured and relies on free clinics.

Henry takes home $1,170/month, which includes disability insurance and tax
deductions, however his monthly living expenses are $1,613; leaving him $443 over
budget. He supplements his income by working another job that pushes his total
work week to 70 hours/week, excluding his 3 hour/day public transportation
commute. When asked does he have time for fun, he responded as if the concept
seemed foreign, explaining that he lives a “simple life of church, home and work.”
He continued, “Basically the way the schedule is, you don’t have that much [time
for family], because your off days are not back to back...so you get off one day, you
take care of errands, but by [then] it’s time to go to bed to go to work the next
day.”

In response to Wal-Mart’s failed public commitments to Henry and all the “Henrys”
working at Wal-Mart, Amisha states, “part of the challenge [is Wal-Mart] makes lots
of claims that sound great, but in reality it’s quite different...Costco on the north
side has quality living wage jobs, why can’t Southsiders get those same living wage
jobs too.”
So yes Henry does have a Wal-Mart job; but the job forces him to work almost 2 full-
time jobs just to cover his living expenses. Perhaps if Henry was given a choice
between two jobs: one at status quo and one that gave him back the 30 extra hours
taken away from laughing with his family, watching the game with his buddies, and
being more active in his church - then who knows what story Henry would be
sharing with me today.

*The name changed for purpose of protecting identity of worker

Dhyia is a consultant with the virgoProject, LLC. Wal-Mart did not respond to
Bronzeville Metropolis’ request for an interview. For respectful exchanges of ideas
please feel free to share comments at dhyia@yahoo.com, for all others stop and
smell the roses.