US: The Great Wal-Mart Wars

Publisher Name: 
San Francisco Chronicle

Would you like a Wal-Mart "supercenter" store to move into your
community? Think of the low prices and the convenience of one-stop
shopping! You just park once and get whatever you need groceries, drugs, plants, toys, dog food, even eyeglasses.

Sounds great, doesn't it? So why have nearly 200 communities refused to
allow such big-box stores to enter their lives? Do they know something we
don't?

To find out, I embedded myself in the Wal-Mart wars that have recently
broken out in Contra Costa County. What I learned, in a nutshell, is that
Wal-Mart's nonunion, big-box stores drag down other workers' salaries,
destroy downtown businesses, prevent smart-growth development and increase
traffic congestion. What really surprised me though is that we, the
taxpayers, end up subsidizing Wal-Mart stores by paying for the health and
retirement needs of its workers.

Wal-Mart has announced its intention to open 40 new supercenter stores
each the size of four football fields in such fast-growing California
suburban areas as Contra Costa County.

But Contra Costa County has fought back. A year ago, Martinez prevented
a traditional Wal-Mart store from expanding into a supercenter that could
sell groceries. On June 3, the county Board of Supervisors voted to ban
such supercenter stores from unincorporated areas of the county.

In making its decision, the board cited a study done by the San Diego
County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization. It found that an influx of big-box stores into San Diego
would result in an annual decline in wages and benefits between $105
million and $221 million, and an increase of $9 million in public health
costs. SDCTA also estimated that the region would lose pensions and
retirement benefits valued between $89 million and $170 million per year
and that even increased sales and property tax revenues would not cover
the extra costs of necessary public services. "Good jobs, good pay, and
good benefits should be the goal of an economy," SDCTA concluded, "and
supercenters are not consistent with that objective."

Wal-Mart, as is its custom, has launched a counterattack against Contra
Costa's ordinance. The company parachuted in platoons of
signature-gatherers who are stationed outside discount stores and asking
shoppers to sign a petition that would place the board's decision on a
ballot. If they collect 27, 000 legitimate signatures, Wal-Mart could
reverse the board's ban.

In response, a coalition of community groups have mobilized to defeat
Wal- Mart's counterattack. But they face a formidable enemy. Over the last
40 years, Wal-Mart has grown into the nation's biggest employer and the
world's largest retailer. Every two days, Wal-Mart opens another
superstore. It has more people in uniform than the U.S. Army. Last year,
it banked about $7 billion in profits.

The troops fighting Wal-Mart's invasion of Contra Costa County include
the Gray Panthers, small businesses, dozens of churches, the National
Organization for Women, and environmental and smart-growth activists.
Young people, recruited by the Association of Community Organizations for
Reform Now (ACORN), fan out daily to discount stores and try to convince
shoppers not to sign Wal-Mart's petition. They even carry cards that allow
voters to withdraw their signature if they have already signed the
petition.

The generals in charge of this community resistance are union leaders.
John Dalrymple, director of the Contra Costa Central Labor Council, admits
they face an uphill battle. The giant retailer is infamous for its
take-no-prisoners, giant retailer. Wal-Mart's ability to offer such
low prices, as any union member will tell you, has been achieved by paying
its workers or "sales associates" low wages, offering unaffordable
health coverage and no retirement benefits and importing most of its
products from developing countries, some of which use child and prison
labor.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1179, located in
Martinez, is headquarters for the war against Wal-Mart. Barbara Carpenter,
the union's president, comes from a family whose members have worked for
decades at retail companies that provided decent wages, affordable health
benefits and pension plans. "It's about saving the American dream," she
told me.

Wal-Mart, she points out, lowers wages among working families and
crushes family businesses. "It not only pays workers less than most of its
retail competitors, two-thirds of workers don't have health-care coverage
a cost taxpayers are picking up across the country.''

Did she say taxpayers? That's right. We, the customers, get such low
prices and convenient shopping because we, the taxpayers, subsidize
Wal-Mart profits by paying for county public health services, food stamps,
and social services for its retired employees.

So should you shop at Wal-Mart? To make up your mind, consider this: If
you earn a livable wage or are protected by a union, you can probably buy
all your monthly needs at Wal-Mart. But that's because the average
Wal-Mart employee, who earns about $15,000 a year, cannot do the same.

Ruth Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She can be emailed at rrosen@sfchronicle.com

AMP Section Name:Retail & Mega-Stores