In a stunning upset that made headlines around the globe, voters in Inglewood, California, overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure on April 6 that would have opened the way for a massive Wal-Mart supercenter. The final tally was 7,049 against and 4,575 in favor.
The unprecedented measure would have given Wal-Mart complete control over a 60-acre site, allowing it to bypass the public process and build a supercenter and other chain retail stores without any of the normal environmental, traffic, or zoning reviews. Although the initiative, which was written by Wal-Mart, only needed a simple majority to pass, one of its provisions stipulated that repealing the measure or altering the terms of the development would require support from two-thirds of voters.
“This is the first time in the country they’ve tried to do something this extreme,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, leader of the Coalition for a Better Inglewood, which formed to fight the initiative. Had the measure succeeded, it likely would have become a blueprint for Wal-Mart and other developers seeking to skirt the planning process in cities and towns across California.
Although there were indications in the final days that the vote might be closer than expected, Wal-Mart had been predicted to win. The company outspent opponents many times over. Final figures on spending are not yet available, but Wal-Mart spent well over $1 million on the campaign itself and several million more on television advertisements that are considered part of its normal operations and will not count in the spending tally. It hired advertising and public relations firms, and employed an army of people to canvas the city door-to-door.
Much of Wal-Mart’s campaign message was infused with race and class themes. “It’s important that Inglewood consumers have the same shopping that many of the neighboring communities have had for years,” Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos repeated throughout the campaign. Wal-Mart’s television ads and fliers featured smiling African-Americans talking about how good a supercenter would be for Inglewood and how much the company cares about its employees and the community. It touted the jobs that would be created for local youth.
Inglewood, which is part of the Los Angeles metro, has a population of 112,000, split evenly between African-Americans and Latinos. The city’s median household income is $34,000, about 20 percent lower than the national average, and its unemployment rate is 8.4 percent.
The opposition—which included labor unions, local business owners, community groups, religious leaders, and dozens of elected officials—had far less money to work with. The Coalition for a Better Inglewood budgeted $35,000 for its campaign. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor put up $125,000.
But they made up for the gap in financial resources with volunteers and grassroots communication networks. Churches and mosques, for example, disseminated information and facilitated discussions within their congregations. Opponents emphasized that a supercenter would force local businesses to close, eliminate jobs, and depress wages.
They also talked about the damage the initiative would do to community self-determination. “This is . . . about protecting democratic processes,” State Assemblyman Jerome Horton, who represents Inglewood in Sacramento, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about ensuring every citizen has a voice in any development that could have a negative impact on their community.”
The fight began in October 2002. Wal-Mart indicated interest in building a supercenter in Inglewood and the City Council responded with an ordinance that banned stores over 155,000 square feet that sell more than 20,000 nontaxable items (i.e., food). Wal-Mart threatened a lawsuit and the city rescinded the ordinance.
Angry that the council backed down, Wal-Mart opponents, led by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents supermarket workers who make higher wages than employees at competing supercenters, helped elect a new member to the city council. Fearing that the ordinance would be reinstated, Wal-Mart gathered the 6,500 signatures necessary to put its initiative on the ballot. (The signature gatherers were paid more than the company’s cashiers.)
The Inglewood outlet would have been Wal-Mart’s first supercenter in Los Angeles County. The company wants to open more than forty across the state, but has encountered resistance in many areas. In some cases, Wal-Mart has overcome the opposition; last month, it persuaded voters in Contra Costa County to overturn an ordinance banning supercenters. But elsewhere, concerns about Wal-Mart’s predatory tactics and low wages appear to be growing. The city of Los Angeles is weighing a measure to ban supercenters. Bills have been introduced in the legislature that would force Wal-Mart to provide health insurance to more of its employees and pay for economic impact studies before it could build stores.