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Oakland vs. Wal-Mart

WAL-MART DOESN'T take no for an answer. When Contra Costa County passed a ban on "big box" super-centers, which combine general merchandise and full-service grocery departments, the largest corporation in the world parachuted in paid workers to gather enough signatures to place a referendum on the ban on the March ballot.

Now, Wal-Mart faces another foe -- the city of Oakland, which passed an ordinance Tuesday night that bans the building of super-centers that include full-service supermarkets and exceed 2.5 acres in size. Smaller big-box stores (including Wal-Mart) and supermarkets would not be affected.

Not everyone agrees with the city council's decision. Wal-Mart officials, for their part, view their intention to build 40 new super-centers in California as providing "consumer choice."

Council member Desley Brooks, who cast a "no" vote on the ban, told me, "We're always saying Oakland wants to court retail business and increase jobs, but then we put up these obstacles. People in Oakland will just drive to another city." Instead of paying $5 for a box of cereal at Safeway, for example, a shopper could buy the same item for $1.97 at Wal-Mart. So, say opponents, isn't the city council acting against the interests of the poor, who want low prices and desperately need low-skilled jobs?

In the short term, yes. But the city council, especially council President Ignacio de la Fuente and council member Jane Brunner, who introduced and fought for the ordinance, were looking at the larger picture.

"Superstores like Wal-Mart," Ignacio de la Fuente told me, "have a detrimental impact on the local economy. They wipe out mom-and-pop stores and discourage other supermarkets from coming into the neighborhood. They also cause greater traffic congestion and air pollution because people frequently drive across town to shop for groceries at super-centers. Most importantly, they depress the wages of workers and offer unaffordable health benefits so that taxpayers have to pay for those workers' health services."

He's right. Wal-Mart, for example, has already pushed some two dozen national supermarket chains into bankruptcy during the last 10 years by paying poverty-level wages, offering unaffordable health benefits and underselling other big box stores by importing goods made by cheap foreign labor. The average Wal-Mart grocery worker earns $8.50 an hour, which results in a below poverty-level annual income of $14,000. By contrast, a union worker at a supermarket earns $17 an hour, plus health benefits, which allows working families to share a slice of the American Dream and keeps taxpayers from picking up the tab for their health care.

Richard Benson, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers, AFL- CIO, knows what Wal-Mart super-centers do to workers, their families and neighborhoods. To the council, he argued that "The combined negative effects on the community far outweigh consumer savings that can be realized at a super- center. . . . It is important to remember that the lower prices offered by stores like Wal-Mart are in large measure a function of labor costs more than 20 percent lower than supermarkets and other competitors, which in turn result in lower community standards."

Oakland now joins a few dozen cities and counties
from Stratham, N. H, to Bozeman, Mont. -- who have banned such super-stores by convincing their residents that if they pay less at a super store, they end up paying more taxes when workers land on the public dole. With $245 billion in revenues, however, Wal-Mart can easily afford to fight off unions that try to organize its workers and cities that try to ban its stores.

Stay tuned: The Wal-Mart wars in California have just begun.

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