Friday, July 31, 2009

Food “desert” or low-paying jobs – which is the bigger problem facing Chicago?

One of the tasks of working public relations is concocting stunts to illustrate whatever particular cause one is trying to promote (a.k.a., being paid to tout on behalf of some corporate interest).

Which means that listening to public relations pitches to write about some issue often involves hearing about absurd act taking place.

YET I GOT my chuckle when I received a press release recently (via the e-mail address provided in the right-hand column of this weblog) informing me that Serafin & Associates took it upon themselves to conduct an informal poll on behalf of Wal-mart.

As described in the release, the Chicago-based PR firm literally called every single residence listed in the Chicago “white pages” to ask whoever picked up the telephone what they thought of the idea of Wal-mart locating their stores within the city limits.

Their “survey” came up with a 74.4 percent favorable rating. In short, three-quarters of Chicagoans do not share the objections of the City Council and other political people when it comes to the company that has long viewed labor unions as a problem that stands in their way of achieving maximum profitability.

Wal-mart is using public relations executives as part of its strategy to get approval from the City Council for a new store they want to build at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue. They’re pushing the angle of the food “desert,” which points out the fact that supermarket chains have long been reluctant to locate their stores in urban areas that do not have a sufficient Anglo population to make the neighborhood economics comply with their preferences.

THIS WOULD BE a case of Wal-mart, which in their newer stores include extensive supermarket sections, being willing to buck the trend by putting one of their stores in a location that most definitely would never be mistaken for one of the suburban or rural communities where one traditionally expects to find a Wal-mart.

By coughing up that statistic of three-quarters support from Chicagoans, it tries to show our political people as being ridiculously out-of-touch with the masses who live here. That is about the biggest sin a political person could ever commit.

But why do I have my problems accepting this statistic? First off, the idea that someone had to pull out the “white pages” and call everybody strikes me as an unenviable task. My own copy of the Chicago white pages is 1,204 pages long (and the Chicago yellow pages is twice as thick).

I don’t envy the thought of whoever had to make those calls.

BUT THIS IS one of those cases where one must really be specific about what question is being asked of those people who are being called and asked their opinion.

For if all one is asking is, “do you support fresh food being available,” then of course the answer is “yes.” I don’t think this telephone survey was that simplistic, but any attempt to portray the Chicago City Council’s past problems with Wal-mart as being that simple is a mistake.

What this really comes down to is the idea that Wal-mart sees Chicago’s inner city and doesn’t see “black” or “white.” They see “green,” as in the color of the money that would be spent by people who would shop at a Wal-mart store bearing a Chicago address.

The problem is that Wal-mart has its history of being rather proud about itself when it comes to engaging in tactics that are meant to undermine the interests of labor unions that would represent the interests of the employees at their stores.

LIKEWISE, CHICAGO POLITICAL people are of a breed that sees the labor unions as an interest that needs to at least be tolerated, if not cooperated with.

So city officials have always been reluctant to have Wal-mart, which has countered by setting up stores in the suburban communities adjacent to Chicago (in some cases, right across the street from the city limits).

If it sounds like I think the hassles Wal-mart is getting is part of the price they need to pay for their past actions with regard to organized labor, then perhaps I’m just too urban in my perspective on life and society to ever be accepted by those who think Wal-mart is a part of what makes this country’s culture so great.

When I see a Wal-mart worker, I see someone who is probably working his (or her) butt off for a low-paying job because circumstances are such that they probably don’t have much in the way of alternatives. Most of these jobs are definitely not paying the kind of salaries that anyone could seriously support a family with.

THIS IS A fact that Wal-mart is trying to obscure by bringing up the food “desert” issue, which is a legitimate one. I have seen the older neighborhoods where going grocery shopping is a significant ordeal because it entails a trip.

It is also an issue that I feel fortunate not to suffer from these days (living all of one block from Jewel Foods supermarket, and within a five-minute car drive from at least four other supermarkets).

But the idea that this problem somehow ought to be used to ignore the serious concerns of Wal-mart employment is ridiculous.

The bottom line is that if Wal-mart were really so disgusted with Chicago politicians that they couldn’t bear the thought of dealing with City Hall, they’d have gone away a long time ago.

INSTEAD, THEY KEEP coming back with proposals because they see the city’s shoppers and they want our money.

If in the process Wal-mart has to make some concessions to the way they usually conduct business in order to get their foot in the Chicago door to sell us goods and get our money, then that is a good thing.

It might very well be that for once, City Hall is looking out for the public’s interests.

We’d better not get too used to it, however. Because it will be just a matter of moments before our aldermen figure out some other issue on which they can benefit themselves.


1 comment:

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