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Wal-Mart vs. Contra Costa County

by Ruth Rosen

ASK SHOPPERS in Martinez why they shop at the Wal-Mart there and they'll
tell you that the prices can't be beat, there's plenty of parking and its
one-stop shopping allows them to buy everything from toothpaste to T-
shirts.

So why have hundreds of communities across the nation tried to prevent Wal-Mart from moving into their towns? And why, in particular, did the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors pass an ordinance that would ban certain big- box stores larger than 90,000 square feet (the size of two football fields) from unincorporated parts of the county?


Do all these people share some perverse pleasure in forcing consumers to
pay higher prices for the food and the goods they buy?


Of course not. The reason is that union members, environmental activists,
members of the clergy and elected officials realize that every new
Wal-Mart, which brings new jobs and low prices, also comes with hidden
costs -- to other retail workers, to small businesses, to smart growth,
and most of all, to taxpayers who discover, much to their surprise, that
they end up subsidizing the largest corporation in the world.


The Los Angeles City Council, for example, released a 2003 study that
described how Wal-Mart super-centers drive down wages in the local retail
industry, create a strain on public services and damage small businesses.
The report concluded that Wal-Mart should be banned unless the corporation
increases wages and benefits for its employees.

"Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay For Wal-Mart" is a new
report just released by Rep. George Miller of Martinez, senior Democrat on
the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Wal-Mart's violations of labor law, according to the report, "range from
illegally firing workers who try to organize unions to unlawful
surveillance, threats and intimidation of employees who dare to speak
out."

Wal-Mart is also infamous for manufacturing 60 percent of its products in
China and other countries, often under grotesque labor conditions; forcing
its workers to work off the clock, and for undercutting unionized janitors
by hiring illegal immigrants.

None of this is news to many Californians. Seventy thousand grocery
workers in Southern California have been on strike and locked out of
supermarkets for more than four months. Their employers have concluded
that they can no longer compete with Wal-Mart's low cost of business if
they continue to offer decent wages and affordable health-care benefits.

Critics of Wal-Mart describe this as a race to the bottom and the death of
the American Dream. The average union grocery worker earns about $17 per
hour, which has allowed generations of workers to maintain a middle-class
standard of living. Wal-Mart "associates," who work in the grocery
departments of its super-centers, by contrast, earn about $10 for the same
work.

One reason Wal-Mart is so profitable is that it uses us, the taxpayers, to
subsidize its labor costs. Among the 44 million uninsured Americans,
according to Miller's report, are the majority of Wal-Mart's workers, who
simply cannot afford the premiums offered by their employer.

The PBS news program, "Now With Bill Moyers," recently reported that Wal-
Mart's personnel offices actively encourage employees to apply for public
assistance. In addition, economists at the Institute for Labor and
Employment at UC Berkeley estimate that in 2002 California taxpayers
subsidized $20.5 million worth of medical care for Wal-Mart workers.

In other words, we taxpayers pay for the federal programs that provide
health care for the children of Wal-Mart's workers. We also pick up the
tab for the local public hospitals that provide health care for Wal-Mart
employees.

Wal-Mart, however, always insists that such accusations and studies are
false and never takes no for an answer.

After the Contra Costa supervisors passed the ordinance blocking big-box
grocers last June, Wal-Mart parachuted in signature-gatherers to place the
issue on the ballot. Determined to overturn a decision made by the
county's elected officials, Wal-Mart is now arguing that the issue is
really about "consumer choice."

But what it's actually about is Wal-Mart's efforts to boost its profits by
opening 40 new super-centers in California.

Those of you who live in Contra Costa County now face an important
decision: Should you subsidize the world's largest retailer or should you
support your county's right to protect the standard of living of ordinary
working families?

Vote "yes" on Measure L.


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