The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Last-Minute Campaign Money Could Hurt Living Wage Push

by Mischa Gaus

Big retailers are injecting late donations into the coffers of some Chicago aldermen in what critics see as a move to squash a living-wage ordinance that would hit stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Feb. 22, 2007 – Corporations that opposed last year's living-wage bill in Chicago have channeled about $110,000 to sympathetic aldermen since January, in the run up to a City Council election. The infusion doubled in the two weeks before next Tuesday’s election – too late for corporate money to become an issue in endorsement meetings, candidate forums and voter mailings.

"[The corporations are] trying to affect this election under the radar," said Alderman Joe Moore, one of the principal sponsors of last year’s living-wage ordinance, which was vetoed by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Three aldermen switched their votes when the council attempted, unsuccessfully, to repeal the veto.

The living-wage bill would have incrementally boosted minimum wages at large retailers to $10 an hour, with an additional $3 an hour if workers were not provided benefits. The wage hike would have been restricted to employees of firms with revenues of at least $1 billion and with retail spaces of at least 90,000 square feet.

Unions and community groups, which pledged $2 to $3 million in money and in-kind help following the veto to candidates supportive of the living wage, promise to re-introduce the bill if election results favor them.

David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told The NewStandard that the late donations flowing from corporate interests were not a product of strategy but of the business community’s disorganization.

Living-wage supporters say success in forcing retail corporations to accept higher wages in Chicago could spread to other cities and across other types of service work.

Among the skeptics are Madeline Talbott, executive director of the anti-poverty group Illinois ACORN. "If you’re worried about what people will say about donations, you hide them until the end," she said, adding that campaign expenses could be billed and paid later if candidates knew cash would be arriving late in the election.

Labor and community groups devised the living-wage ordinance to challenge Wal-Mart’s low wages and notoriously unfriendly policies toward labor unions as the company prepared to move into cities in the Midwest and East – the traditional home of organized labor. Wal-Mart announced plans last year to open 50 stores in inner cities, and on Monday disclosed new sites, including Indianapolis and Cleveland.

Living-wage supporters say success in forcing retail corporations to accept higher wages in Chicago could spread to other cities and across other types of service work.

Inner cities are seen as crucial markets for continued retail expansion. A report last year by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City estimates that nationwide, inner cities could absorb 35 percent more retail supply than currently available – a $42 billion gap retailers are loath to ignore.

Little of the campaign money has come directly from corporations, but much has flowed through the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA) – trade groups that led opposition to the wage law.

Unions are outspending corporations overall in the election, although Snyder and others speculate that business is hedging its bets by giving heavily to the mayor.

State campaign-funding disclosures show retail giants Wal-Mart and Target have together transferred $80,000 to the Chamber of Commerce and IRMA in the last two weeks. The firms together gave $45,000 to IRMA on February 7. Within five days, the trade group’s political action committee disbursed $15,500 to candidates that oppose the higher wage and $1,500 to a candidate supporting the wage hike. On the sixth day, Target sent another $20,000 into IRMA’s coffers.

"It's like reloading a gift card," said Ken Snyder, coordinator of the Grassroots Collaborative, which campaigned for the living-wage law.

IRMA president Vite said the back-to-back donations three weeks before the election came because of scheduling issues. "It just happened by coincidence," he told TNS. The group had almost $80,000 more on hand, according to records filed last week with the state. Vite said he had no specific plans to spend it in the campaign’s waning days.

Wal-Mart has also given directly to aldermen who opposed the ordinance, spending $13,500 in the last month. Target took a different tack, writing relatively small checks to some aldermen who supported the wage law while dispatching $35,000 to the retail merchants’ group, which in turn almost exclusively supported candidates who oppose the living wage ordinance. Target did not return calls requesting an interview.

The top corporate-cash recipient, George Cardenas, has received $19,500. Cardenas was one of the three aldermen who switched his vote to oppose the living-wage rule.

Unions have poured campaign workers and money into some races for months, giving at least $77,600 in financial and in-kind donations to JoAnn Thompson, who is a candidate for Chicago’s 16th Ward and supports the living-wage ordinance. Thompson is running against Shirley Coleman, another one of the politicians who flipped their votes on the living-wage bill.

Five other candidates have received thousands of dollars in donated staff time and other in-kind support from unions and other living-wage supporters.

Unions are outspending corporations overall in the election, although Snyder and others speculate that business is hedging its bets by giving heavily to the mayor, who could funnel some of his almost $6 million campaign chest to living-wage opponents during the run-off elections many will face.

Although corporate financing of mayoral politics is common, Dick Simpson, a former alderman and professor of political science at the University of Illinois–Chicago, said a coordinated funding campaign at the aldermanic level is unusual. He said transnational businesses are paying close attention to municipal politics to prevent precedents from being set.

"If Target is required to pay a living wage in Chicago and health benefits, other cities will follow suit," Simpson said. "So they’re trying to defeat it here."

Talbott said that if a prevailing wage could be established within one arena of the service industry, campaigners could spread it to other sectors like hotels, parking or security. That raises the stakes in what would otherwise be a sleepy local election.

"People don’t build movements around losing strategies," Talbott said. "If living wage doesn’t go anywhere in Chicago, it’s not going to be tried anywhere else in any serious way."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Mischa Gaus is a contributing journalist.

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