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Chicago Passes "Living Wage" Law


Lawmakers in the Midwest U.S. city of Chicago have approved a measure requiring large-scale discount stores to pay their employees a so-called "living wage." As VOA's George Dwyer reports, the new law could inspire other cities to adopt similar legislation.

The City Council of Chicago has voted to require large retail stores -- also known as "big box" stores -- to pay their employees a minimum wage of $10 an hour, and an additional $3 in employment benefits, by the year 2010. "Big box" stores are defined as those having at least 8300 square meters in floor space, and earning at least $1 billion in revenue annually. Labor advocates have argued for years that the starting wages paid by "big box" retailers has not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Chicago Alderman [city legislator] Joe Moore voted in support of the measure. "Let's make sure that when these big stores open in our neighborhood, they help our people, not exploit them."

But Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and a variety of local business leaders fought against the bill, arguing it could discourage "big box" operators from setting up shop in the city.

"I lose a lot of sales tax money and real estate tax money, and jobs. It's [as] simple as that,” said Mr. Daley.

The mayor also expressed concern that the city could lose jobs in areas where they are badly needed, including many African-American communities. Wal-Mart's first and only store in Chicago -- now under construction -- may be its last as a result of this vote. The firm said this week it will now look for alternative locations outside of the city. But the bill's opponents are not yet giving up the fight, threatening to bring a lawsuit to get the living wage ordinance thrown-out.

Chicago businessman Gerald Roeper said, "We're going to have to tear down the sign these alderman just put up that says, 'Chicago is closed for business'."

Nineteen Chicago-area firms, including retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target, are subject to the wage changes. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a boost in the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. That figure has not been raised since 1997. Boosting it would increase the wages of some 14 million Americans.