Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Wal-Mart brings hopey-changey to Chicago

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal:

Until very recently, unions, preservationists, people who just don't like business, etc., would not have had a hard time keeping out a nonunion, big-box retailer. In 2004, at the same time the first Chicago Wal-Mart was approved, a second store for the South Side was rejected -- and organized labor responded by pushing for a "living wage" law and going after the seats of those aldermen who had voted yea. So what changed?

Most obviously, the economy did. Mayor Richard Daley, a strong Wal-Mart supporter, appreciates that the retailer will help bring relief to a city suffering from declining tax revenues, high commercial vacancy rates, and unemployment nearly a point above the national average. The Chicago & Cook County Building Trades Council came around after a promise that new Wal-Marts would be built by their members, many of whom are out of work.

But the agitation for a Wal-Mart also came from the affected community. The Chicago Defender put it well in an editorial in May: "While the nation is slowly emerging from a horrific recession," the paper wrote, "Black communities, like [Ald.] Beale's 9th Ward, are still in the throes of depression. The only thing that ends that kind of economic downturn is jobs. That is what most Black leaders keep telling Congress and the president. It is what most community activists say is necessary to stop some of the violence on our streets. This community needs jobs. And yet, we have aldermen taking the position that if they cannot secure 'good' jobs for their constituents, they would rather they stay jobless. That is indefensible."

Anytime people lack basic rights, it is only natural that they will be grateful for what they can get. That's our "just be glad you have a job" culture coming through for us again: You have to be glad to have a job, because it's not as if you automatically have some right to live! Life is earned by working for others, liberty is the opportunity to do so, and pursuing happiness is something to consider once these prior obligations are fulfilled!

Of course, it's easy to point out what people should be grateful for when they don't have a right to anything in the first place. That is a very old game, played by those who always begin with the assumption that people don't have rights. Communities don't have rights; investors have rights. If communities want jobs, they have to respect the right of capital to basically run the entire show, set the terms, and get the community to pay for as much of the enterprise as possible, whether that means tax incentives, or infrastructure, or paying employees the legal minimum -- or as Wal-Mart's recent past would have it, not even that. The "community" becomes a vector for profit, nothing more, and the least objection to how capital conducts itself is met by a lecture on the importance of gratitude in all things!

Naturally, it's "indefensible" to ask whether people have a right to live in health and security independently of the quarterly expectations of large investors. That just means you don't want a job at all! This is how working people lose to capital every time they attempt to confront it on terrain that is not their own, because the rules are not their own. It's "indefensible" because they have no defense. This is why you have to take a revolutionary stance toward any system that is run by it. Otherwise you just lose and lose, and you watch things get worse and worse.

My parent's generation had the benefit of socialist initiatives, like the social welfare state, which created, for the first time, something known as the "middle class." Capital has spent all its time since working to undermine and dismantle it, so that even something as accepted as the 8-hour day in their time is now a distant memory. You work 4 hours, or you work 14 hours; meanwhile your parents don't understand why you can't just get a full-time job in the sense that they understood it when they were growing up. It hasn't really hit them that there are no good jobs, because the constraints that were placed on capital in the late 20th century have been undone, and it was the constraints that made jobs good, in the sense that jobs didn't exist only for the benefit of investors, which they do now. So my point about a revolutionary stance is that it is the only thing that has ever even produced reforms that had any meaning within the system. It's plainly obvious what 40 years of Democratic Party liberalism gets us, which is just bad to worse.


Jenny said...

I don't think it's happened over 40 years since your parents obviously had it better than you do. Ir was just that people lost the will to fight for better rights and conditions. They're somewhat complacent now.

Dan said...

I'm sending this post to my mom, who can't understand why - with a master's degree and a job at which I use both Microsoft Excel and Outlook - I make little more than minimum wage.

Of course, the real reason I'm commenting is to give you kudos on the Frusciante reference. I think all of nine people have that album!

Coldtype said...

As a native Chicagoan I've watched this process with Wal-Mart up close and personal while raising some of the issues you point to here with friends, family, and co-workers until I'm blue in the face to little avail. It's going to be a long road.

Richard said...

"Ir was just that people lost the will to fight for better rights and conditions."

Jenny, the 40-year period in question began as capital initiated an all-out war on what it decided, finally, was the excessive power of labor. That war has been on all fronts and has been enormously effective. Have people lost the will? Perhaps. But they haven't "simply" or "just" lost it. The terrain is very different and the enemy is powerful and implacable.

If anyone's complacent, I'd say it's those of us who have historically been able to avoid the worst of the battle, if not quite rising to a level of wealth. I mean somewhat well-compenstated white collar workers, a class of people that has very little identification with working class problems, even though they themselves are rarely more than a paycheck or two away from serious problems.