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Wal-Mart Wars

by Ruth Rosen

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, anti-union policies. 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.

Convenience and cheap prices, it turns out, come with hidden costs.

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