Is Opposition to Chicago WalMarts Grounded in Class and Culture?

Why are people up in arms about WalMart coming to Chicago, when other big-box retailers with comparable labor practices are welcomed with open arms? Plus: labor opposition to Walmart isn’t a zero-sum game, even if it looks like it.

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The Tribune editorial page comes out in favor of WalMart’s plan to build stores across the city—which if anything is going to get more controversial. Previously attention had been focused on neighborhoods like Chatham, low-density areas in need of both retail and jobs. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, the collapse of urban neighborhoods has left WalMart with the blank retail slates that made it so successful initially in the rural South, where the company started.

But now WalMart company is eyeing Lakeview and Logan Square, neighborhoods dense with existing businesses, instead of business-sparse areas, a serious issue—not just in terms of jobs—that Kimbriell Kelly of the Chicago Reporter has written about at some length.

I’ve read a lot about the WalMart fight from both sides, but this point hasn’t come up very often:

Wal-Mart should be treated like, oh, PetSmart, or any other large retailer. A store with an appropriate size and design for a neighborhood should be welcome.

As labor historian and WalMart critic Nelson Lichtenstein pointed out in a Chicago Reader interview, WalMart isn’t alone in its opposition to unions and questionable labor practices, criticism of which has made it so difficult for the company to move into Chicago. Hardly:

This is what UFCW organizes around—that Target is just as tough, and they are. And also, on the health benefits, Target is basically the same as Walmart, if not slightly worse. Target, and all retail really, except for unionized grocery stores and a few other stores like Costco and Bradley’s, they’re all militantly antiunion. Home Depot even more so.

But here’s the rationale—if you force Target to adhere to some guidelines, it won’t make a difference because Walmart’s still the big boy in town. And if Walmart caves on whatever the issue is, then all the others are going to as well. The logic of it is that Walmart is setting the standard and is setting the terms, and if you could crimp Walmart, then you will, ipso facto, crimp everybody else.

And it’s actually true. There are Targets all over Chicago, with one due to open on State Street in the beating heart of Chicago retail—the Carson Pirie Scott building, no less. And I’ve heard nary an objection. (Update: Should have known that Angela Caputo of the Reporter and Aricka Flowers of Progress Illinois would be on it.)

Lichtenstein claims it’s because WalMart is the king you have to come at. I’m not convinced. Target is beloved by urbanites, carrying the imprimatur of Oprah and an aspirational reputation (“tar-zhey"). Target is middle-class, urban, and Midwestern; WalMart is Southern, rural, and working class. I can’t shake the suspicion that some of the opposition to WalMart is rooted in culture, which gives the company even less traction than its labor practices arguably merit.

On the other hand:

Chicago needs to get over its Wal-Mart phobia. The efforts to keep the company’s stores out of poor neighborhoods that are starved for fresh produce — food deserts — were just shameful. That was largely driven by union protectionism.

Consider what actually happened. In the face of union opposition, WalMart didn’t pack up and go home. They mounted a substantial political and PR campaign. They continued to face union opposition, leading to the big-box ordinance, which was vetoed by Mayor Daley, another victory for WalMart. To complete the final push, WalMart offered some comparatively minor concessions…

In meetings with Wal-Mart, Chicago politicians won some concessions. For example, the Chicago stores will all be union-built, and Wal-Mart agreed to donate $20 million to neighborhood charities. Most significantly for a company that has been loath to strike deals on wages, Wal-Mart had agreed to an entry-level wage of $8.75 an hour, 50 cents higher than Chicago’s minimum wage as of July 1, Mr. Daley said.

…and they won.

Criticizing unions for “protectionism” is like criticizing lawyers for defending clients. That’s what unions do: protect the rights and earning potential of their members. On the other side of the field, WalMart is supposed to protect the rights and benefits of its shareholders. Unions leverage collective power of employees in opposition to corporations, which leverage the collective power of investors and the market. They’re both business interests, and they both operate like business interests.

Like the oppositional structure of the legal system, it’s supposed to allow a balance of power between stakeholders. Considering the waning power of private unions and the down economy, it’s unsurprising they began with a stringent initial bargaining position, and unsurprising that they were successful only in winning modest concessions.


Photograph: I Love Food (CC by 2.0)



3 years ago
Posted by Micah Uetricht

While I think that it is worth mentioning and discussing the element of a cultural and class bias against the Southern, rural, and working class-ness that people associate with Wal-Mart, I really don't think that is the primary basis for people's opposition to the company.

Urbanites love Target, of course, but they probably wouldn't if there had been decades of campaigning against the company and an all-out effort by unions and progressives over the last several decades to associate Target with destroying small towns and driving down wages.

We've never seen that push despite the fact that, as Lichtenstein points out, Target really isn't that much different from Wal-Mart. That's because, from a community/labor organizing perspective, it doesn't make sense to go after a smaller chain like Target when the biggest one is setting the pace for everyone else.

In the 1990s, for example, anti-sweatshop activists launched a really intense campaign against Nike, while not talking much about Reebok or Adidas or any other shoe company despite the fact that those companies had similar labor practices. The point was not to endorse any of those companies, or even really engage in much discussion about them (at least in terms of public talking points), because a single campaign on any issue can't take on an entire industry at once--there has to be a specific target (no pun intended) that can be isolated and attacked and eventually beaten. And you want to make that isolated enemy the one who has the most power, the one who makes the rules for the rest of the industry.

I definitely hear you on wanting to take class and cultural biases into concern when we're discussing a major policy decision like this. But while those biases are certainly real in this case, I think the bigger reason people have expressed such opposition to the company is because the unions and community organizations and others who organize around these issues have repeated over and over again over the last several decades that Wal-Mart is evil and they shouldn't be allowed into communities.

If the company started paying a living wage and providing decent health benefits tomorrow, the same forces that waged that campaign against Wal-Mart would start start scheming their attack on Target. Urban devotees would be thrown into mental crisis for a little while--and, for reasons of class and culture, many or most probably wouldn't stop shopping there--but I think after a few years of an anti-Target campaign like the anti-Wal-Mart one that has been drilled into people's heads, many would give up on the store.

3 years ago
Posted by chicagodesigner

The irony is that the very people that Wal-Mart and Target that are in the most need of decent goods at low prices, are the very people that lost their manufacturing jobs as more and more manufacturing went to China. As we shopped at these stores, we encouraged our jobs to go elsewhere. If we continue to shop at these stores we should demand better quality goods manufactured in N. America. Allow us to support ourselves. We may have to pay more for the goods but we would have more jobs. Simple but true, hard to implement.

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