US: California Voters Reject Wal-Mart Initiative

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

Voters in Inglewood, a racially diverse working-class suburb of Los Angeles, have soundly rejected a ballot initiative to permit construction
of a 60-acre Wal-Mart shopping complex exempt from
virtually all state and local regulation.

Wal-Mart's defeat at the polls on Tuesday may portend
difficult battles ahead for the retailing giant as it moves
forward with plans to build 40 of its supercenters in
California, combining Wal-Mart's usual assortment of goods
with large grocery departments on as much as 200,000 square
feet of floor space. The Los Angeles City Council is
preparing an ordinance that would in essence outlaw
construction of such retail behemoths within the city
limits and several other California cities, including San
Diego, are considering similar measures.

The Inglewood vote against the Wal-Mart, by a 60 percent to
40 percent margin, was a victory for a coalition of unions,
churches and community groups who said the shopping
development would have driven local retailers out of
business and gutted the city's legal, environmental and
planning powers.

Wal-Mart spent more than $1 million to promote the
initiative, which the company put on the ballot after local
officials rejected the proposed development last year. The
vote was closely watched around the nation as a test of
Wal-Mart's ability to sway public opinion and influence
political bodies as the company moves from rural and
small-town America into the heart of the nation's largest
cities.

Opponents cheered their vote, depicting it as a triumph of
David against Goliath. Wal-Mart, with annual sales of more
than $250 billion and more than 1.3 million employees, is
the world's largest retailer. Inglewood is a city of about
113,000 people, roughly half African-American and half
Latino. An estimated 10,000 Inglewood households are headed
by union members.

"I think that it means that Wal-Mart has to go through the
front door and deal with cities and communities as equals,"
said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, leader of the Coalition for a
Better Inglewood, a group formed to fight the Wal-Mart
project. "They can't trick cities and communities into
giving away the store, getting everything they want without
any oversight. They're going to have to do business
differently if they want to do business in California."

The Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of the Holy Faith
Episcopal Church in Inglewood, said that while many of her
parishioners did not oppose the building of a new Wal-Mart
store in their neighborhood, they objected to the way the
company tried to circumvent local officials by taking the
matter directly to the ballot.

"They voted no because they didn't want to give up their
property, their rights and their processes," Ms. Perez
said.

Bob McAdam, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the company
regretted the outcome of Tuesday's vote but said it would
not deter the company from pursuing its expansion plans in
California and elsewhere.

He said that Inglewood's opposition to the development was
largely inspired and financed by organized labor, which
opposes the company's anti-union policies and relatively
low wages. Inglewood's four city council members all
opposed the Wal-Mart plan and were among the leaders of the
drive to stop it. The Los Angeles affiliate of the
A.F.L.-C.I.O. spent about $110,000 to defeat Wal-Mart at
the polls.

"We are disappointed that a small group of Inglewood
leaders together with representatives of outside special
interests were able to convince a majority of Inglewood
voters that they don't deserve the job opportunities and
shopping choices that others in the L.A. area enjoy," Mr.
McAdam said.

"Throughout the campaign we said this is just about one
store in Inglewood," Mr. McAdam added. "If we win, that's
all it means. If we lose, it will have no implications
beyond that. We're still going to meet our goal of building
the stores we predicted we'd build. It's a disappointment
but it doesn't set us back."

He said the company had yet to decide whether it would
return to Inglewood city officials with a revised plan for
the 60-acre site near the Hollywood Park race track, or
simply move on to its next project.

Jerome E. Horton, a Democratic member of the California
Assembly who represents Inglewood and adjoining areas, said
that the Inglewood vote was a referendum on the ability of
a large corporation to win exemption from local zoning and
planning laws.

"The question was whether the wealthiest company in the
world could circumvent the law," Mr. Horton said at a small
victory rally for the anti-Wal-Mart forces at the Inglewood
City Hall this morning. "The answer was no."

He said that local leaders were willing to consider a new
proposal from Wal-Mart to locate a store in Inglewood.
"We're prepared to negotiate, we're prepared to work with
you," Mr. Horton said. "But you have to comply with the
laws of California."

Having won in Inglewood, Los Angeles labor leaders are now
preparing for a broader contest with Wal-Mart across
Southern California. Miguel Contreras, secretary treasurer
of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor,
A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he expected Wal-Mart to oppose the Los
Angeles ordinance banning big box stores and to spend
freely to win the right to locate stores in the city and
other urban centers. Unions from across the country will
band together to oppose the Wal-Mart expansion strategy, he
said.

"It will become the battle royal for all of organized labor
in the United States," Mr. Contreras said. "It will be
where labor makes its stand."

AMP Section Name:Human Rights