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Wal-Mart, unions form rock, hard place for Daley. ANALYSIS | Daley caught in big squeeze

Supporters of the big-box ordinance demonstrate in 2006. The ordinance passed, but Mayor Daley vetoed it. (John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

The City Council’s failure to resolve the stalemate that has prevented Wal-Mart from building as many as five Chicago Supercenters has put Mayor Daley in a political box he has desperately tried to avoid.

He can either grant administrative approval for a Chatham Wal-Mart and risk alienating union leaders who opposed his 2007 re-election and whose support he needs to win a seventh term and solve financial crises at City Hall and McCormick Place.

Or he can allow the impasse to drag on and risk a $30 million lawsuit against the city and a continuing exodus of jobs, tax revenue and shopping choices to the suburbs.

The clock is ticking. The developer of the proposed Chatham Wal-Mart at 83rd and Stewart is in default. Foreclosure is imminent.

Speaking after a community policing event in the 9th ward Saturday, Daley said he Wouldn’t grant administrative approval for the Wal-Mart.

“You don’t want to push something down someone’s throat,” Daley said. “Nothing happens then. You have to educate people and that’s what this is all about.”

But last week, Daley hinted strongly that he was prepared to take matters into his own hands.

It happened after Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) tried and failed to tie a Chatham Wal-Mart to a requirement that retailers with more than 50 employees that benefit “directly or indirectly” from city subsidies pay a “living wage” of at least $11.03 an hour.

“There’s a series of things we’ll be doing . ..,” Daley said then. “We’re gonna be talking to many people because it’s not only for jobs and economic recovery but also for … an enormous amount of revenue” for the city.

Aldermen would like nothing better than for Daley to go around them. “People look at the way the union movement got involved in the last [aldermanic] election, and nobody’s looking for that to occur again,” Burke said.

With the demise of the Hispanic Democratic Organization and other groups tied to the city hiring scandal, another alderman added, “The unions are the only game in town as far as organization goes. Nobody wants to do anything to p— them off.”

As late as last month, Daley was determined not to wear the political jacket alone. “When I’ve done it in the past, I’ve had editorials. … You say, ‘The mayor is a tough guy. He’s not listening to the aldermen, not listening to the citizens,'” he said then.

The Wal-Mart controversy has already given birth to the big-box minimum-wage ordinance blocked by the mayor’s 2006 veto.

In 2007, Daley’s re-election bid got the cold shoulder from all but one union. Labor spent millions to elect a more union-friendly Council.

The big-box veto might have been forgiven if it had been labor’s only beef. But it was more like the final straw. The bill of particulars includes the mayor’s privatization frenzy, hundreds of layoffs and the 28-month wait for a new contract that ultimately denied retirees back paychecks, among other gripes.

After the election, Daley cozied up to union leaders, negotiating a 10-year contract with members of the building trades that locked in the prevailing wage paid in private industry. Union leaders have since agreed to cost-cutting concessions that helped Daley avert more than 1,000 layoffs.

Now, the mayor could be forced to burn the bridge he worked so hard to build.

“If the black aldermen won’t stand up and force Burke to do it, why should Daley stick his neck out,” said a mayoral confidant, apparently referring to the fact that “six or seven” of the Council’s African-American women oppose the Chatham Wal-Mart.

Signing off on the Chatham Wal-Mart won’t solve the problem, another Daley adviser said. “We need several” supercenters in Chicago’s food deserts, the adviser said.

Daley could break the logjam by pressuring the Council to vote first on a Wal-Mart Supercenter at 103rd and Doty.

Sources said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) has lined up more votes than Chatham Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), in part because the 9th Ward site is so far away from any other retailers.

“His development is the largest development we’ve ever seen in the history of this city. It’s bigger than Wal-Mart. It’s creating jobs in construction and afterwards,” Daley said.

Contributing: Mary Wisniewski

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A visual journalist living in Chicago.

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