In 2004, when Wal-Mart proposed opening stores in Chicago, the City Council encountered a new–and to many of its members, an unsettling–phenomenon: debate. Some aldermen argued that the big-box retailer offered wages that were too low. Others argued that it brought jobs and shopping options to neighborhoods desperately in need of both. Everyone claimed to be fighting for the rights of the poor.

So did the members of the finance committee, who soon were discussing the city’s first big-box living-wage proposal. But after the council signed off on a Wal-Mart on the west side, and hundreds of people stood in line hoping to get jobs there, talk of a living wage disappeared.

But in recent months Mayor Daley, the man who once kept the City Council from wandering down the path of dissension, has seemed a bit preoccupied. Aldermen have noticed, and the council has busied itself with an ambitious set of new bans, requirements, and resolutions. In one of the latest flashes of activity, the finance committee’s chair, Ed Burke, revived the 2004 big-box proposal, and 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore proposed a new one; both called for a minimum wage of around $10 an hour plus benefits for big-box employees. Last week the committee held a hearing on the proposed ordinances. As in 2004, it turned into a contest over who could best defend the rights of the poor.

Dave Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, argued against any minimum-wage requirement. Ray Suarez, alderman of the 31st Ward, asked him, “Don’t you believe that these people deserve a fair wage?”

“A fair wage and safe working conditions,” Vite said.

“Do you think $5.75 is a fair wage?” Suarez demanded. That’s the current federal minimum, though it’s $6.50 an hour in Illinois.

“I can’t speak to that,” said Vite. “It might be. Maybe in southern Illinois.”

Alderman Ed Smith, who represents the low-income 28th Ward on the west side, asked Vite, “Do you know what it means not to have insurance when you’re trying to go to the doctor? Do you know what it means when a mother goes to a store when she doesn’t have enough money to buy milk?”

Vite glared at Smith. “Alderman, today is my mother’s 79th birthday, and from the time I was two until the time I was six we were on public aid. I know what it’s like to go to the store and buy the peanut butter with the oil in it. Yes sir, I do know what you’re talking about.”

Smith was taken aback. “OK. Well then, we’ve been through some of the same things,” he said. “Let’s work to make things better for people.”

Later Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, also warned against moving ahead with either proposal. “I would not want to sit in your chair, because it’s a tough job,” he told the aldermen, sounding less than convinced. “But we are being talked about across the country for some of the ordinances we’ve passed.” He didn’t need to remind anyone that in recent months the council has banned foie gras and smoking in bars and restaurants. He simply called the proposed minimum-wage ordinance another “onerous business regulation” that would force more jobs and tax revenues to the suburbs. When Wal-Mart and other big stores open in city neighborhoods, he said, they create competition that drives wages up and prices down. “Milk will cost more, bread will cost more, insurance will cost more if we don’t let these businesses in,” he said, then suggested the aldermen meet with members of his group before passing any legislation regulating them.

Alderman Burton Natarus of the 42nd Ward jumped up. “I’ve known you for years,” he told Roper. “And whenever we sit down to talk we get together for an hour and walk out with nothing. You’re a very difficult person to work with.”

His voice rising, Roper told Natarus he needed to talk to business leaders from his downtown ward. Natarus shot back that those leaders were sitting in the room–at his invitation. Both agreed that a boost in the minimum wage should be implemented nationwide, not just locally, but their voices kept getting louder and louder.

“Your problem is you argue with everybody,” bellowed Natarus, “and if you don’t start listening your organization is going to keep getting smaller.” He stood up to leave for another event and on his way out said, “I enjoyed that.”

“I’m not going to argue economics with folks because, frankly, they’re probably better at it than me,” said Billy Ocasio, alderman of the 26th Ward. “But I also don’t want to argue with people who’ve never supported a wage increase before.” He said his wife recently made him watch a television program about households on tight budgets, and that had set him thinking. “If Oprah Winfrey can do a show about this,” he declared, “we can do something.”

A little later several neighborhood activists told the committee they too had concerns about the ordinance. Some were from the 37th Ward, home to the city’s first Wal-Mart, which they praised as a source of jobs. “To do the right thing sometimes looks like you’re not doing the right thing,” said the Reverend Joseph Kyles of the 37th Ward Ministerial Alliance. “There is a Goliath out there in companies making record profits. There is a Goliath in our city. But as you try to face Goliath, please don’t kill the children of Israel.”

Joe Moore thought he understood. He said he wanted to create more opportunities for everyone and insisted that other cities with living-wage ordinances have managed to attract more business, not less. “I think we have to be very careful if we assume without examining the facts,” he said in a lecturing tone.

Kyles nodded and said he agreed, then continued to disagree. He said the minimum wage should be raised for everyone if it was going to be raised at all. “You don’t know the repercussions of this ordinance,” he went on. “Rather than just running with it, I suggest you go back and do your homework. You already have your big-box retailers–”

“No, I don’t,” said Moore. “There aren’t any in my ward. But I’ll take your suggestion and amend the ordinance so it includes everyone.”

A few seats away Alderman Isaac Carothers of the 29th Ward sat up straight and grabbed his microphone. “Mr. Chairman, do I hear Alderman Moore suggesting that we amend the ordinance?”

Burke explained that Moore was joking. But Moore clearly knew Carothers was hoping to scuttle the whole minimum-wage idea. “I’d be happy to do that if Alderman Carothers would sign on as a cosponsor,” he told Burke.

Carothers called his bluff. “Well then, let’s amend it,” he said.

Moore paused, then said, “I’m eager to hear the next witness.”

William Beavers, alderman of the Seventh Ward, stirred in the seat next to Carothers. “He’s just talking down there like he always does,” he said pointedly into his microphone.

Moore smiled, and Burke called the next witness, another Austin activist who argued against the ordinance because it would hurt the poor.

No vote has yet been held.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.