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Wal-Mart Does Saul Alinsky
The Wall Street Journal

July 7, 2010
View the Original Article

When it comes to community organizing, maybe the Wal-Mart crowd has a thing or two to teach our president. And in the hometown of the father of community organizing, the late Saul Alinsky.

After an epic struggle, a unanimous city council gave its blessing to only the second Wal-Mart in the city. But the vote just before Independence Day paves the way for as many as 24 stores in the coming years—and as many as 10,000 new jobs. Alderman Anthony Beale, who represents the Ninth Ward where the new Wal-Mart will be located, says the vote "gives my people hope." "This the beginning of a new era," he told the Chicago Defender, the city's black newspaper. "I am filled with joy."

For a city rich in labor history, the ironies abound. The Pullman Park area where the store will be located takes its name from George Pullman of the Pullman Palace Car Company. More than a century ago, the famous Pullman strike began in this neighborhood in reaction to wage cuts after the depression hit in 1893.

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."

How Alinsky would have reacted to all this is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, he had strong roots in the union movement. On the other hand, he always said that community organizing was supposed to be about helping communities agitate for their own choices.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said the approval took years of outreach. The company worked with key politicians, listened to local concerns, and used its own community action network to get the word out and mobilize affected communities. Many people, Mr. Restivo says, hadn't known that all Wal-Mart employees, full- and part-time, have access to health coverage. Others were encouraged to learn that an entry-level job is often only the start of a career: More than 70% of Wal-Mart's store managers started as hourly associates (Wal-Mart's word for its employees).

From its sales figures, Wal-Mart knew people already value the brand, because each year Chicago city dwellers spend nearly half a billion dollars at suburban Wal-Marts. Opening stores throughout Chicago means low prices and convenience for people without cars. That means that grandma doesn't have to walk 19 blocks for a gallon of inexpensive milk or fresh fruit.

In the end, appeals to class warfare by opponents of the company just didn't hack it with the community. Just before a crucial zoning committee vote, South Siders held a demonstration in which they wore Wal-Mart supplied T-shirts while blowing vuvuzelas—the same noisy horns blown by fans at World Cup soccer matches in South Africa.

No doubt for some this is more evidence of the false consciousness that our lumpenproletariat is prone to fall into. But is it? For all the would-be Alinskys out there, which form of community organizing is likely to deliver real hope and change to struggling neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward: the mostly government programs that young Mr. Obama fought for—or the jobs and opportunities that come from the kind of investment Wal-Mart will be making?