Chicago council puts off vote on Wal-Mart stores

Delay comes after voters in Calif. rebuffed retailer


CHICAGO - Less than a month after voters in Inglewood, Calif., rejected Wal-Mart's effort to build a store there, Wal-Mart was dealt another setback yesterday when the Chicago City Council postponed a vote on zoning changes that would have allowed it to open its first two stores here.

The setbacks in Chicago and Inglewood reflect the increasing difficulty Wal-Mart is facing as it tries to push in to more urban markets.

Most of Wal-Mart's more than 3,500 stores in the United States are in rural and suburban areas. Chicago may be a major test of whether organized labor, which is relatively strong here, can block or obstruct the company's plans to continue expanding in big cities.

"It would be nice to have seen the proposal go through and be voted on today," said John Bisio, a Wal-Mart spokesman, "but this just gives us the opportunity to engage people and go back and dispel a lot of the misinformation that's out there."

The dispute has pitted some of the city's most prominent politicians, clergymen and civic leaders against each other. Both sides brought busloads of people to City Hall for the council meeting, and there were boisterous demonstrations in the corridors and on nearby streets.

Supporters of Wal-Mart's expansion plans here say the company offers both badly needed jobs and rock-bottom prices. They said they were disappointed by the council vote, but still expected it to approve the zoning changes at its next meeting on May 26. Individual aldermen are able to block a vote on such changes once, but under council rules a roll-call vote must be taken at the next meeting.

Opponents vowed, however, to intensify their campaign against the giant retailer, which they say crushes small businesses and lowers labor standards by paying low wages, offering minimal benefits and opposing efforts by its employees to unionize.

Aldermen who represent the poor and mainly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago where Wal-Mart wants to build the stores support the company. They say the neighborhoods, on the South Side and West Side, are desperate for the estimated total of 600 jobs Wal-Mart will bring. The City Council usually defers to the wishes of local aldermen on zoning matters, but the Wal-Mart proposal has stirred such controversy that the council set aside that tradition yesterday.

"This is certainly not a local issue for one ward or for Chicago," said William J.P. Banks, an alderman who voted against the plan. "It's a nationwide issue, and it's not going to go away anytime soon. People are looking for a quick fix in areas where economic development is very poor, but down the line they'll see that along with that quick fix come a lot of problems."

A leading opponent of Wal-Mart, Jamie Daniel, who heads a coalition of labor, religious and civic groups called the Chicago Workers' Rights Board, said she thought opponents had "a good shot" at blocking the company's plan.

"This vote shows that aldermen still have a lot of questions and concerns about Wal-Mart," Daniel said. "We've been organizing like maniacs, and now it's going to be even more intense."

The most vocal supporter of Wal-Mart on the Council, Emma Mitts, who represents the neighborhood where the West Side store would be built, said she was "a little upset" by the council's decision. "Let them try to organize in my community," Mitts said of the opponents.

Labor unions are stronger and more combative in Chicago than in most places where Wal-Mart has opened outlets. Seeking to counter their influence, Wal-Mart has hired a formidable team of local public relations and legal consultants, including the law firm of Michael Daley, brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Bisio, the Wal-Mart spokesman, said his company was "a very good corporate citizen" and had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to community projects in cities and towns near Chicago where it has stores.

"Our average hourly wage is $10.70 an hour, which compares favorably to other Chicago retailers like Target and Home Depot," Bisio said. "As far as having an impact on the overall economy, if you talk to the chambers of commerce in any town where we're present, they'll tell you that we not only create jobs, but we also help attract sales revenues for ourselves and neighboring retailers, which generates taxes that pay for law enforcement jobs and roads and everything else."

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