News & Politics » Our Town

Big Box Bucks

How much does Wal-Mart spend to avoid paying its workers more?



Wal-Mart won't say how much it spent trying to influence the City Council's vote on the big-box minimum-wage ordinance, which the aldermen passed 35-14 on July 26. But we can make an educated guess.

David Vite, head of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, says his group hired lobbyists and a legal team to fight the ordinance, which will boost wages to $10 an hour plus $3 an hour in benefits by 2010, but that Wal-Mart paid for the barrage of advertising before the vote. The company's ads appeared in the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Chicago Defender as well as on radio and TV stations. Eric Adelstein, partner at Adelstein/Liston media consultancy, which ran the Smoke-Free Chicago campaign that ended in the ban passed in December, says that advocacy campaigns in the city usually cost at least $1 million and that TV ads chew up the most funds--a typical ad run goes for $600,000.

John Bisio, midwest public affairs director for Wal-Mart, says the amount his company spent wouldn't begin to approach $1 million, though he points out that the strategy of the ordinance's supporters was to force Wal-Mart to spend a lot: "They knew we would have to come out and try to defend ourselves against this rhetoric and we would have to commit some resources."

But another consultant thinks $1 million might not be far off the mark. Fred Wszolek is a partner at Sterling Corporation, a Republican strategic communications firm that three years ago helped Wal-Mart defeat a referendum on the ballot in Portage, Michigan, that asked voters to overturn a city council vote to let the company build a store. He says campaigns like that, especially in pricey media markets like Chicago, start at a "seven-digit number and go from there." The past three years of campaign-finance data reported on the California secretary of state's Web site show that Wal-Mart spent more than $1.5 million to defeat a ban on big-box stores in Contra Costa County and another $1 million getting a pro-big-box referendum on the ballot in Inglewood (the company lost that round). Campaign-spending filings in Arizona show that last year the company spent almost $400,000 bankrolling another referendum in Flagstaff.

According to campaign-finance data submitted to the state by Chicago aldermen, Wal-Mart contributed $5,000 in June to the 37th Ward's Emma Mitts, a vehement opponent of the ordinance. (Mitts also received $1,000 from Wal-Mart in 2003.) The data don't yet show that Wal-Mart directly gave money to any other aldermen who opposed the ordinance, and there's no way to know how much the company spent on lobbyists buttonholing aldermen as well as journalists. It's also not clear how much was spent on organizers bringing people out to pro-big-box rallies or on the T-shirts and signs handed out there. According to the Tribune, at a July 20 rally at the south side's Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, some participants said organizers had promised them jobs if they showed up and told them to bring resumes.

Ken Snyder, coordinator of the Grassroots Collaborative, the coalition of labor, religious, and antipoverty groups that campaigned in favor of the ordinance, says he's already been contacted by a dozen groups from other cities about starting their own ordinance campaigns. And ACORN, the national network of community groups, is looking for 25 major cities where it hopes to run campaigns.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Add a comment