Mayor Rahm Emanuel and First Lady Michelle Obama announced Tuesday a plan to combat “food deserts” with four grocery chains opening 17 stores in Chicago neighborhoods bereft of fresh food. But little attention was paid to the fact that one of these “grocery chains” is discount store Walmart. The world’s largest corporation has also added – or plans to add – stores in decidedly non-food desert locales like the West Loop, Lakeview, and River North.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and First Lady Michelle Obama announced Tuesday a plan to combat “food deserts” with four grocery chains opening 17 stores in Chicago neighborhoods bereft of fresh food.
But little attention was paid to the fact that one of these “grocery chains” is discount store Walmart. The world’s largest corporation has also added – or plans to add – stores in decidedly non-food desert locales like the West Loop, Lakeview, and River North.
As Progress Illinois has reported, Walmart has pressed ahead, “with plans to make Chicago its model of urban expansion.” Local unions and community groups seem to be reorganizing their fight against Wal-Mart. For now, the most immediate resistance is on the neighborhood level.
The Chicago Federation of Labor – and subsequently the full city council – gave a qualified endorsement for the Pullman Walmart last year, as the company promised to use union construction labor. Walmart store employees, though, still lack collective bargaining representation.
Walmart opened a “market” store in the West Loop this September and an “express” store in Chatham this July with community resistance.
According to a company press release, Walmart also plans a supercenter in Chatham – to be built in the spring of 2012. There are also plans for two smaller stores in West Englewood as well as two smaller stores in Lakeview. Additionally, a River North express store is slated for completion in the spring of 2012.
These are all on top of the Pullman super store – and the Austin Walmart, which has been around since 2006.
Community organizations like the Grassroots Collaborative – which previously organized campaigns around Walmart, like the proposed living wage ordinance – are not currently focused on the discount store.
Most unions, though remain actively opposed to Walmart – especially United Food and Commercial Workers, which has successfully organized workers at grocery chains like Jewel and Dominick’s, stores that now find themselves competing against Walmart.
“We are still fundamentally opposed to the expansion of this company because of their wages and the impact they have on existing businesses, including unionized competitors,” says Elizabeth Wray, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, local 881.
However, Walmart’s Chicago strategy is opening these smaller market and express stores – the Chatham store was the first “express store” in the nation – so that the buildings they enter don’t need to be rezoned. No rezoning means no required approval from aldermen and often means the avoidance of public hearings.
“They are coming in and negotiating in the smaller format locations and often times doing so without the knowledge or support of the aldermen,” Wray says. “But because of the different formats they don’t have to rezone and that makes it difficult. It’s out of the alderman’s hands.”
For example, Walmart announced their new market store at 3638 N. Broadway without first telling the alderman, James Cappleman (46th).
But the other planned store for the Lakeview area – at 2840 N. Broadway – is an instance where the neighborhood demanded accountability from Walmart.
Bruce Alan Beal, a local business owner of Beal Research Support Services, started a Facebook page, and “made a bunch of noise” that the Broadway and Surf locale was impractical and might cause a traffic nightmare at an already convoluted intersection as well as decimate local businesses.
As residents like Beal vocally pushed against Walmart, community groups like the South East Lakeview Neighbors Association negotiated with Walmart so the store would sign a restrictive covenant that prevented store expansion.
“We worked with them under the assumption that they would inevitably be coming into the neighborhood and got the best deal we could,” says Liz Cohen, president of the South East Lakeview Neighbors Association.
Some 44th ward Lakeview residents were able to pressure Walmart despite their alderman's, Tom Tunney, supporting the store and major media like Crain’s and the Chicago Tribune also backing Walmart.
Now there is a chance that Walmart might not enter southeast Lakeview, after all. “They haven’t signed a lease – the alderman said more than a month ago that they would sign one in the next 2-3 weeks,” Beal says. “I hope that means they’re not going to – maybe they listened to our arguments that this space doesn’t make business sense for them.”
Wray of UFCW says the union is, “looking at different options down the road to work with the city council and mayor’s office.” In the mean time, it bears watching if residents from River North to West Englewood also challenge Walmart’s arrival.