Retail Armageddon has been postponed in Chicago for at least a month. A south-side development including a Wal-Mart, the Antichrist of big-box stores, didn’t get a necessary zoning change at the March 31 City Council meeting. But there were rumblings and fiery eruptions in the council chambers.

Two weeks ago union leaders successfully lobbied the zoning committee to defer a zoning change for a Wal-Mart in far west-side Austin, represented by 37th Ward alderman Emma Mitts. Wal-Mart stores aren’t unionized–not unusual for retailers, but opponents say Wal-Mart treats its workers worse and pays about $2 an hour less than, say, Home Depot. Mitts, who’d been confident of the deal’s approval, was furious. Then the committee turned around and approved zoning changes for a development in Alderman Howard Brookins’s 21st Ward, on the south side, not realizing it included a Wal-Mart.

Chicago Federation of Labor president Dennis Gannon vowed to get Brookins’s Wal-Mart tabled when it came up at the meeting on the 31st–and sure enough, in an unusual move, zoning committee chairman Alderman William Banks refused to release the project from the zoning committee for a vote by the full council.

Both Wal-Mart actions violated a holy City Council commandment: Thou shalt respect aldermanic prerogative. Translated from the ancient aldermanic tongue, that means aldermen get their way in their own wards.

Alderman Burton Natarus is usually the most notable defender of the prerogative, because his downtown ward encompasses areas that most Chicagoans consider citywide assets. In 2002 the Mayor Daley-controlled Chicago Landmarks Commission and the council’s landmarks committee approved landmarking a group of Gold Coast row houses against Natarus’s wishes. When it came up for a council vote Natarus challenged anyone who was thinking about crossing him: “If the people who think the central business district is their prerogative, fine!…File your papers, run against me, and I’ll beat your tail!” The other aldermen got so riled up it looked like they might actually vote against Daley, so Natarus ended up telling them to vote for the landmarking after all. They did. The aldermen may be protective of their prerogative, but they’re not crazy.

When Banks tabled Brookins’s Wal-Mart at last week’s meeting, Brookins naturally objected. “I do also note that when we had an orientation [for freshman aldermen] that was put on by Alderman Burke, one of the things we talked about was tradition,” he said grimly. “Namely, aldermanic prerogative. And I was just wondering that this seems to be odd with respect to [the Wal-Mart project], a matter that is a $110 million development of a major shopping area that the residents of the city of Chicago and the 21st Ward certainly need.” Ed Burke, who’s chairman of the powerful council finance committee, had helped lead the effort to stall Mitts’s Wal-Mart.

“The issue involved far transcends ward politics or precinct politics, and it goes to the heart of the city of Chicago,” Banks said. “It is a citywide matter, not a ward matter.”

“Has the union ever spoken to the alderman, that you know, Mr. Chairman?” asked Alderman William Beavers, chair of the budget committee and city Democratic chairman.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Banks replied.

“Can I ask [Alderman Brookins], has the union ever spoken to you?” asked Beavers.

“No,” Brookins answered curtly.

“Listen,” said Beavers. “I’m kinda amazed that…the union hasn’t taken time to talk to the alderman. That’s the first person that the union should talk to, and they should try to work out those problems…not talk to me, send me messages, and talk to everybody in this City Council before talking to that alderman….That’s a project in your ward, and you should be the first one they talk to!”

Alderman Ed Smith concurred: “First of all, no one is going to bring a project to my ward of this magnitude and do not speak to me. I. Run. My. Ward. The people elected me to run my ward!”

Soon after, Natarus got up from his seat, stalked over to Smith, and began berating him, apparently for opposing some past project in Natarus’s ward. Smith looked bewildered. He put a hand on Natarus’s sleeve, but Natarus jerked away. “If you ever lay your hand on me again, it’ll be the last time!” he barked, stamping off.

Obviously, aldermanic prerogative is a touchy subject. Afterward, Natarus declined to comment. Smith said he didn’t “have the faintest idea” why Natarus was upset, but insisted he enjoys working with him.

CFL president Gannon and his union colleagues were savvy enough to forge close relationships with key aldermen like Banks and Burke, yet somehow they neglected the most sacrosanct of council principles: get the local alderman on board. Wal-Mart, though a newcomer to Chicago, already has religion on this–they gave Mitts a $1,000 campaign contribution in December.

Brookins and Mitts both represent poor, largely African-American wards that could use Wal-Mart jobs. Bypassing them and rallying support among white aldermen from more affluent areas doesn’t make the unions look good. At a press conference before the meeting, west-side alderman Isaac Carothers pointed to nonunion stores like Target in the northwest-side wards of Wal-Mart’s council opponents. “We are not going to just sit by idly and watch projects go to other communities with our votes and then watch projects come to our community and they don’t go through!” he declared. “We’re not gonna sit by and do that, I can guarantee you that!”

And you have to wonder if this tactic will get the unions what they want, anyway. Banks acknowledged that he’ll let the aldermen vote on Brookins’s development at the next council meeting, and with the brouhaha over aldermanic prerogative, Brookins is sure he’s got the votes for his Wal-Mart. Mayor Daley weighed in for Mitts by saying, “You can’t say the south side should have one but the west side can’t. It doesn’t make sense.” I don’t see a lot of leverage there for negotiating.

What might have been helpful is if Mayor Daley’s administration had negotiated with Wal-Mart when Mitts’s store proposal first came up last year. Daley might have had the clout to get a better deal for local Wal-Mart workers–or at least a commitment not to harass employees trying to unionize. That didn’t happen, and Daley’s response now is to say, “If nothing goes in there…don’t blame the mayor.”

A united front on the part of the aldermen would be the next best thing, but the unions blew that with their divisive strategy. Even the anti-Wal-Mart aldermen don’t appear to be taking much of a leadership role in the effort: at last week’s meeting they failed to spell out many specific goals they wanted met. Zoning chairman Banks spoke merely of hoping that Wal-Mart and the unions would “get together” and “perhaps work out their differences.” Burke said a firm “commitment by Wal-Mart not to get into the grocery and food business would go a long way toward resolving this controversy.” So maybe that’s all the unions want–which won’t do a thing for Wal-Mart employees.

And that’s a damn shame. If you’re going to deal with the devil, at least try to outfiddle him.

Following the recent induction of the Dells into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the City Council congratulated the legendary group from Harvey, famous for hits like “Oh What a Night.” Alderman Richard Mell, now best known as the governor’s father-in-law, recalled how the Dells figured into one of his high school romances: “The year is 1956–a lot of you weren’t even born then. I was at the senior prom in Muskegon, Michigan. I had this girl I was trying to court for a year. Finally she felt pity on me and said she’d go to the prom with me. So we’re on the prom floor dancing, and the group comes out [with] ‘Oh What a Night.’ So I got my arm around her and I’m dancing away and I’m singing in her ear, ‘Oh what a night.’ She says…” Here Mell made the first of several pauses and repetitions because of laughter. “She says–she said–I remember what she said. ‘Don’t get any ideas, buster,’ she says. ‘You ain’t the Dells.'”

Mell turned to the Dells, who were sitting on the side of the council chamber. “If you’d been there I might’ve gotten to first base,” he told them. “But I struck out that night.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.