Wal-Mart wants to open 300 new “supercenters” by 2002, but the corporation’s plans may be derailed by mounting opposition in heavily unionized regions. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has joined with local business owners and neighborhood activists to stop Wal-Mart’s expansion in several western states and parts of the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
A “supercenter” includes both general merchandise and a full supermarket. These stores are typically 200,000 square feet or more. Wal-Mart is now the fifth largest grocer in the country and is focusing much of its expansion on this sector. The market research explains why: the average family visits a general merchandise store only once a week, but visits a supermarket four or five times.
The UFCW represents about one million supermarket workers, who earn $8-$16 an hour with full health coverage. Wal-Mart is aggressively anti-union. When meat department workers in a Jacksonville, Texas store voted for UFCW representation in February, becoming the first unionized Wal-Mart workers in the country, the company announced it would buy pre-packaged meat and eliminate their jobs.
Wal-Mart workers earn almost half as much as UFCW members, according to a study of southern California, which found that the company’s entrance in the grocery business in that region would cost workers $1.4 million in wages and benefits. Fewer than two of five Wal-Mart employees have company-provided health insurance. Wal-Mart has also been a leader in the global race to the bottom, forcing manufacturers to shift jobs to overseas sweatshops.
To these complaints, the UFCW has added concerns about the retail giant’s contribution to sprawl, its impact on traffic and neighborhood character, and its role in eliminating local businesses and consolidating the industry.
“The whole community is short-changed when Wal-Mart comes in,” says Chris Ivey of Local 1036 in California. Never before in history has a single company exercised such extensive control over the production and distribution of goods. Wal-Mart accounts for 7 percent of all U.S. retail spending.
“Above all else,” says Ivey, “we need to revisit antitrust.”
At the urging of Local 1036, San Luis Obispo County passed a measure in August that limits the amount of floor space that stores over 90,000 square feet can devote to non-taxable items (i.e., food). The law prevents Wal-Mart, as well as Target and Kmart, from opening supercenters in the county. The union will pursue similar laws in other California counties and cities.
The San Luis Obispo measure was sponsored by a conservative and approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors. Of particular concern was the impact Wal-Mart could have on local farms. Most supermarkets are sensitive to the public’s desire to buy homegrown meat and produce, but Wal-Mart has a strict policy to buy the cheapest available. According to Ivey, this often means foods imported from countries that have less stringent safety and pesticide restrictions.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Local 1439 has petitioned the Growth Management Board to review a recent decision by the Ephrata City Council to rezone residential land to accommodate a 150,000 square foot Wal-Mart. The union contends the Council did not allow for broad public participation in the decision as required by the state’s Growth Management Act.
The local has partnered with other community groups through the Livable Wage Campaign to fight Wal-Mart’s expansion in eastern Washington. Over the next year, it plans to push for city and county measures banning stores over a certain size and requiring new retail developments to undergo rigorous public cost-benefit analyses. The union may also introduce a statewide ballot initiative that would ban stores over 90,000 square feet, unless they obtain voter approval.
”We’re going to put the community’s welfare first and foremost,” says Kevin Galik, an organizer for Local 1439, ”rather than a company with its headquarters in Arkansas.”
As UFCW locals pursue legislative approaches, they continue to engage in dozens of “site fights.” In Springfield, Oregon, union members have joined the Springfield Citizens for Smart Growth to oppose a Wal-Mart supercenter. In both Yucaipa, California and Mesa, Arizona, UFCW locals have gathered enough signatures to force referendums on city-approved big box developments.