Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition was among several activists pressing city leaders to ensure that a new Wal-Mart store, now under construction in the Austin neighborhood, would pay living wages and benefits for all workers. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

With jobs and retailers scarce in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, some residents there are eager for the opening of a controversial Wal-Mart, which will be the first ever to open its doors within Chicago’s city limits.

When told of Wal-Mart’s $10-an-hour base pay, Austin resident Mae Binniefield’s eyes widened. “That’s good,” she said pursing her lips. “I used to make $6.50 an hour at my old job.”

Binniefield, 66, who has lived in Austin for more than 30 years, said she took that job because it was better than nothing. “You can always try at the bottom and work yourself up,” she said.

Officials with the national retail giant say nearly three-fourths of the new store’s workers could come from the neighborhood. And Wal-Mart would pay them at least $9.92 per hour with benefits. However, some question whether that will be enough.

While the company’s pay may seem attractive to Austin residents who are unemployed or working low-wage jobs, some neighborhood activists say current Wal-Mart employees at a nearby store still need help paying their bills.

Construction has started on the 150,000-square-foot site at 1657 N. Kilpatrick Ave. It is slated to open during the first quarter of 2006.

Last year, Wal-Mart won the Chicago City Council’s permission to open up shop in Austin, but many from outside the neighborhood opposed the move. Unions claimed Wal-Mart not only discourages but actively stamps out labor organizing and crushes small businesses. Nonprofits, think tanks and labor activists argued that Wal-Mart would never pay living wages. They also accused the company of taking advantage of low-income customers and employees who have few choices for retail outlets and jobs.

Shortly after approving the Austin Wal-Mart, the city council rejected a proposal to open another Wal-Mart on the city’s South Side.

“I take issue with the question of opposition,” said Roderick Scott, Wal-Mart’s community affairs manager. “We’re proud of what we do for our associates and what our pay scale is for retail. It’s not only competitive but better than our competition,” he said. “It’s always easy to conveniently look at Wal-Mart, but other retailers do less.”

The store will offer nearly 350 jobs. Full-time workers would get health and retirement benefits, and part-timers would be offered retirement benefits after six months on the job, Scott said. “We give our associates an opportunity to develop their skills –¦ to move up through the ranks.”

Neither of Wal-Mart’s major competitors, Target Corp. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., which owns K-Mart, would reveal the base wages paid to their employees. But Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud said the company places a “high value” on paying competitive wages.

Michael Smith, a 39-year-old who has lived in Austin for about 11 years, just wants Wal-Mart to make sure those $10-an-hour jobs go to those living in the neighborhood. “Management has to hire from within the community,” he said while enjoying an afternoon block party this summer at Chicago and Latrobe avenues. “That’s the problem; they always hire someone from Oak Park –¦ and bring someone in from outside the neighborhood.

“You gonna bring it here, then hire here,” he added. “You want to take our money, hire some of these people over here.”

Not far away, Barbara Williams, 58, chatted with neighbors during a card game at the block party. She considers the Austin Wal-Mart a win-win situation for everyone.

She said it will keep residents from having to travel miles to the nearest Wal-Mart and the new store will create much-needed jobs for the community. She said jobs are in such demand that many neighborhood residents don’t care what Wal-Mart pays. “A lot of people were just saying it really didn’t matter to them. They just needed a job and maybe as time went on, they’d get raises,” she said. “But the majority of these people really want a job.”

37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts, whose district includes the Wal-Mart site, did not return repeated calls for comment. But, during city council discussions last year, she supported the move and often cited that the store would be an employment boon for the high numbers of unemployed people in Austin. The 2000 Census reported that 17.4 percent of Austin residents ages 16 and older were unemployed. Citywide, the unemployment rate was about 5 percent.

But it is the “any job is better than no job” mentality that raises the ire of Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition with deep, pro-labor family roots. “That’s backwards,” said Redmond, the son of a Teamster and grandson of a Sleeping Car Porters union member. “We say, yes, the community needs low-priced goods and high wages, but the community needs living wage jobs and healthcare. With low-wage jobs, people can’t sustain families. They cannot buy cars or pay for utilities.”

Bob Vondracek, executive director of the South Austin Coalition, said many workers at the Wal-Mart in west suburban Forest Park about five miles away have come to the coalition looking for help paying for food and bills, specifically heating bills. At Wal-Mart’s base pay, a 40-hour-a-week worker would earn about $20,600 a year. “Take out for taxes, and it’s not a whole lot of money,” Vondracek said.

According to one self-sufficiency calculator for Chicago, adjusted for inflation, a family with two adults and two school-aged children would need $46,692 in August to adequately cover housing, child care, taxes, food, healthcare, transportation and miscellaneous expenses.

The South Austin Coalition, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Jobs with Justice and several citywide groups, pressed the Chicago City Council to guarantee that Wal-Mart would provide workers at the new store with living wages, health insurance, retirement plans and the right to unionize.

“Rents are going up, healthcare costs are going [up], but wages are going down, and we wanted a campaign that said there needs to be living wages and full-time employees working there,” Redmond said.

Vondracek said the South Austin Coalition will continue organizing residents around the idea of living wages, taking a specific look at the history of organized labor in black communities—which would be essential for workers in the neighborhood to gain bargaining power in the face of other retailers looking to locate in Austin. “We want to hopefully break down the real splits between the African American community and organized labor in some cases based on racism and discrimination,” he said.

With more than 3,600 stores nationwide, including its Sam’s Club division and Wal-Mart Supercenters, Wal-Mart is the nation’s leading retailer. In addition to its Forest Park location, Wal-Mart has nearly 20 stores in the Chicago metro area, including those in southwest suburban Bedford Park and Bridgeview, south suburban Lansing and north suburban Niles. Another store is scheduled to open in south suburban Evergreen Park in 2006.

The Austin Wal-Mart is being built at the site of the former Helene Curtis plant, a beauty supplier that once employed hundreds in the community. The Curtis plant was closed in the late ’90s, not long after the company was purchased by Unilever, a Dutch firm.

Broadway Consolidated Companies, a business owned by Margaret Garner, who is black, competitively bid for the Wal-Mart construction job and received it. Garner said that her company requested maximum participation from second- and third-tier minority subcontractors and that they are currently at 71 percent minority participation.

“Too often we’re held hostage in our community by having to pay [much] more than we would in the suburbs. Wal-Mart provides an excellent opportunity to change that,” Garner said.