Big Box Education

There is a burning local topic in Chicago that begs for further debate — even on a national level. Who would have thought our City Council could have spawned such argument — both pro and con — when it passed a Big Box Ordinance July 26. But it did, and the battle of words rages on. I don't know which side I'm on.

The Big Box Ordinance was born after a decisive vote of 35-14. The vote decided that next July employees will receive a minimum of $9.25/hr in wages and $1.50 in fringe benefits at stores occupying at least 90,000 sq ft of space with annual sales of $1 billion or more. By 2010, wages and benefits would rise to $10 and $3, respectively. There also will be annual cost-of-living increases.

After the vote, unions declared victory and television news broadcast cheering supporters who felt they finally landed an effective punch to the guts of retail giants the likes of Wal-Mart (which was seeking to build two stores within city limits), Target, Loews, Home Depot, etc.

Council aldermen were bullish on their achievement, citing the vote would be copied around the country in favor of helping people who work at these retailers. I've never seen Chicago aldermen appear so caring about their constituents! Who would have thought Wal-Mart could have inspired such godliness!

What may have been brushed under the rug is that our aldermen also voted a pay raise for themselves, lifting annual salaries to $98,125. Wouldn't it have been cute if they had not voted for the Big Box minimum wage increase?

Now weeks past the vote and several threats on the part of Mayor Richard Daley to veto the ordinance, some aldermen are rethinking their stance as being unfriendly to big business. Some argue that while the super retailers have threatened to pull plans for building in the city, it's not likely they'll walk away from such a large market. But there are other issues at hand.

Why stop with Big Box retailers? It's been suggested stores the size of individual McDonald's could be affected by ordinances like this one. Another issue is appropriate pay for low-skilled labor. Perhaps ordinances that protect citizens from low-paying jobs with adequate education and training might serve a better purpose. In the August 5 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Kaestner, professor at the Univ. of Illinois, wrote, “These firms employ a small percentage of the workforce and cannot be expected to educate and train a large portion of the workforce. That is the government's job….” He might have something there.

On a very sad note, PFFC's long-time contributor Robert W. Marsh passed away at age 82 on June 29 after suffering for a short period of time with a resistant form of pneumonia.

Bob was a veteran of WWII, where he served in the OSS earning the rank of technical sergeant. He was employed 23 years by Atlas Chemical, which became ICI Americas, as a marketing communications manager. Bob later became executive director of the Assn. of Industrial Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators, where I met him and we enjoyed a long friendship. Upon retiring from his duties at AIMCAL, he joined the contributing staff of PFFC in 1996, where he wrote special reports on coating, laminating, metallizing, and the economy.

Bob will be remembered for his strong booming voice that could bring any noisy room to quick order. But he endeared himself to many for his willingness to share his time and knowledge. He and his wife Anne loved their dogs, and he always found time to share his favorite pets with those in need of kindness in a pet therapy program. He will be missed.

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