Wal-Mart Stores Inc. opened its first Chicago supercenter in 2006 after tense consideration in City Council two years earlier. Proponents heralded the supercenter – located in working class Austin on the city’s West Side – as a promise of jobs and economic revitalization throughout neighborhoods that have seen better times.
This year the Chicago City Council will consider whether to approve construction of a second Wal-Mart supercenter in Chatham Market – a retired industrial site on the city’s West Side. Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. of Chicago’s twenty-first ward is the most vocal proponent of Wal-Mart’s expansion at City Hall, where the Council voted 25-21 to reject a similar proposal for construction of a South Side Wal-Mart in 2004 – the same year the company won approval to build on Chicago’s West Side.
But beyond City Hall, one of hip-hop’s brightest stars – and one of Chi-Town’s favorite sons – is speaking out in favor of the proposal to bring Wal-Mart to the Chatham:
Chicago is suffering right now – this is the murder capital of the country, this is a place where the unemployment rate is 15-20% for black and Latino people…It is my obligation, no matter how much money I have…to help that opportunity.
Rhymefest is largely known to hip-hop beyond Chicago due to his associations with Kanye West, music manager Mark Ronson, and the also-ascendent DC rapper Wale. But the artist has taken time away from recording his upcoming album — El Che — to represent his neighborhood in Chicago’s battle over Wal-Mart. “It’s a food desert,” Rhymefest noted in a recent interview with HipHopWired.com, “As an artist, an activist and a South Side resident, let me put it plainly – if you can’t come in and provide living wage jobs and fresh, affordable produce, then how can you say anyone else can’t?”
Wal-Mart’s critics in Chicago and across the country remind us, however, that Wal-Mart maintains its low prices largely at the expense of their workers. Watchdog groups like Wake-Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch have long documented the company’s troubled worker relations and attempts at urban expansion. The battle over Wal-Mart in Chicago represents a deeper contention for the city’s legislators – how to bring jobs, grocery outlets and affordable prices to the city’s poorer neighborhoods without compromising wages and worker benefits.
In 2006 the City Council passed – and Mayor Richard Daley ultimately vetoed – a minimum wage ordinance that would have required “big box” retailers – “stores with at least 90,000 square feet operated by companies with a minimum of $1 billion in annual sales” – to pay their employees at least $10 per hour by 2010. Daley insisted that the measure “would drive jobs and businesses from [the] city, penalizing neighborhoods that need additional economic activity the most.” Wal-Mart’s supporters at City Hall are suggesting that the new South Side location would create between 300 to 500 jobs, and that the store would pay its employees nearly $12 an hour – in accordance with the nonetheless failed 2006 ordinance.
Meanwhile, Rhymefest and other South Side activists have escalated the debate, galvanizing protestors at a recent demonstration outside of City Hall in support of the Wal-Mart expansion. The rapper has since taken to local media interviews to further his case, and he has even recorded a freestyle and an online music video dedicated to his cause.
But Rhymefest has been increasingly quick to note that the working class of inner city Chicago deserve a living wage and adequate health care and retirement benefits – but that unprecedented unemployment in the midst of recession has cast desperation over neighborhoods like his own:
I’m not here for Wal-Mart; I’m here for jobs, period – I’m here for opportunity. If Wal-Mart is going to come in and give these [kids] some back-to-school material…if Wal-Mart does a community push…if Wal-Mart is going to give them an opportunity to work, should we not let them have that opportunity?
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has weighed in with criticism of Wal-Mart, insisting, “The most important thing is that Wal-Mart has to follow the lead of Costco. Costco pays a living wage, a decent wage. They pay good benefits to their employees, and that’s what every employer should do.”
Where Rhymefest has suggested that – for poor and working class families in dire need of income – working for a meager wage and meager benefits is better than not working at all, Governor Quinn has warned that this sort of complacency encourages a “race to the bottom” in terms of what employers are willing to provide as livable wages and benefits. But here Rhymefest concedes that it is Wal-Mart’s responsibility to respect the neighborhoods they wish to serve. When pressed on the question of Wal-Mart’s generally substandard wages, benefits and employee protections, Rhymefest is certain that Wal-Mart “will only do as much as the community allows it to do. If the community doesn’t respond to Wal-Mart…they’re going to shut those doors.”
Here the Southside rapper and the Illinois Governor are in agreement – retail mega centers like Wal-Mart and Costco may prove essential to the vitality of areas like South Side Chicago, but only if they learn to operate with the best interests of their communities at heart, and in their stores.
[This piece was originally submitted on 5 August 2009 as part of an interview with Campus Progress.]