PI Original Steven Ross Johnson Thursday May 10th, 2012, 10:56am

River North Walmart Gets Chilly Reception From Protesters

The opening of a new Walmart Express store in Chicago’s River North neighborhood was met with protest Wednesday, as a coalition of labor and community groups called for the resignation of CEO Michael Duke in light of recent reports alleging the company bribed officials to further its business interests in Mexico.

The opening of a new Walmart Express store in Chicago’s River North neighborhood was met with protest Wednesday, as a coalition of labor and community groups called for the resignation of CEO Michael Duke in light of recent reports alleging the company bribed officials to further its business interests in Mexico.

Around 20 demonstrators picketed outside of the store located near the CTA Brown line “L” stop at the corner of Chicago and Franklin Avenues early Wednesday morning in opposition to what they said was the world’s largest retailer’s practice of providing unfair wages and benefits to its employees.

“For years we have been trying to bang the drums for living wages and comprehensive health benefits and the right for workers to form unions if they choose,” said Elce Redmond, organizing director for the South Austin Coalition Community Council, a community-based organization that has advocated for worker rights since the 2006 opening of a Walmart Supercenter in the far West Side neighborhood.  

The opening of a Walmart in River North marked the third location in Chicago of the retailer’s Express stores, which are a smaller, more condensed version of its big-box facilities. Other Express locations include one in Wrigleyville on the city’s North Side as well as one in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham.

Such stores, along with the opening of its Walmart Neighborhood Market in the West Loop, have been part of the company’s strategy over the past two years to further its presence in more urban markets, with plans to open several dozen stores over the next five years as part of its 2010 Chicago Community Investment Partnership. According to the company’s web site, the River North location will create 50 jobs.

The plan is expected to create up to 10,000 jobs in the Chicago area and generate more than $500 million in tax revenue, but according to living wage advocate group Local First Chicago Executive Director Suzanne Keers, such figures can be misleading when discussing whether those jobs will pay the type of wages needed for its workers to meet living costs.

“These outside retailers do not bring benefits to the community,” Keers said. “They say a lot of things, but they really don’t bring the benefits that they say they bring and they in turn actually hurt our communities and they certainly hurt independent business owners.”

Keers cited a 2005 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that about 150 retail jobs were lost within a county where a Walmart store opens, leading to an overall $1.2 million loss in retail earnings.

“It’s really a wash in terms of jobs,” Keers said. “When they open up, they hire minimum wage, not full-time jobs with no benefits, and what they do is that they wipe out independent business owners.”

Much of the debate regarding Walmart’s presence in the city has been tempered in the last few years since the opening of the Austin Supercenter in 2006, which sparked protests and calls from aldermen to force the retailer to include livable wage concessions that then Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed. Since that time, a total of five stores have opened with the inclusion of the River North location.  

Keers claimed that by establishing smaller stores within vacant commercial properties as opposed to constructing new large buildings, Walmart has been able to avoid much of the protests and debate it has seen in the past over the opening of one of its stores.

“The small store format strategy is brilliant really,” Keers said. “With the big supercenters, they get all of the pushback with the protests and fussing and it costs them money - in these small stores, they just sign a lease with the landlord.”

Walmart has received support from the city aldermen representing those communities where a new store opens. In a November 2011 written release on the store’s web site, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman was quoted as praising the opening of a Walmart Express in Wrigleyville stating, “I have been pleased with Walmart’s outreach into our community and the steps they have taken to identify local residents for job opportunities. I think the residents of Wrigleyville will find the new store to be an asset to our neighborhood and a great and convenient place to shop.”

Representatives from Walmart did not respond to a request for comment about the protest at its River North store. Calls to the offices of Cappleman and 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly - that includes the River North area - for comment were not returned.

In a written release regarding the opening of the River North location, Walmart Store Manager Andrew Melsness stated, “We are excited about bringing Walmart’s low prices and convenience to the people who live and work in the River North community.”

Image: UFCW local 881

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