Walmart’s urban strategy resisted by workers and small business owners

Hundreds of people rallied outside New York City Hall last week to protest Walmart’s plan to open stores in New York City. “This is a company that kills small business, hurts the communities where it operates, violates labor laws, and pays its workers poverty wages and lousy benefits,” said Jane Thompson of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

On Monday,the Washington DC Living Wage and Healthy Communities coalition rallied at the Wilson building in Washington DC to demand that Walmart sign an enforceable community benefits agreement guaranteeing that it will treat its workers with dignity, provide full-time jobs with good benefits, and help neighborhoods improve their economic standing and quality of life.

These actions were taken as Walmart seeks to expand its presence in urban centers all across the country. It has been trying unsuccessfully to enter the New York market since 2004, but thanks to a directing marketing campaign and an ongoing public relations campaign, Walmart may soon be coming to all five boroughs of New York.

To win over New Yorkers, Walmart initiated a direct mail campaign, ran ads on radio, and opened up a Facebook page. It also flew community leaders to company headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas for a stakeholders summit.  To get support from construction unions, Walmart  promised that its new stores would be built with union labor.

Meanwhile, Walmart has been busy recasting its image. It no longer wants you to think of it as a place to buy cheap stuff; instead, it wants you to think of it as a value oriented, health conscious, neighborly one-stop shopping center. To spruce up its image, Walmart  is  sponsoring the America I AM: The African-American Imprint tour, “a four-year touring museum exhibition that celebrates nearly 500 years of African-American contributions to this country.” It also announced in January that it will  implement a five-year plan to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.

But as Walmart tries to tidy up its image, it has done little to change its labor policies or protect communities from damages it does when it opens for business. A study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that in addition to paying workers less, Walmart drags down the pay for workers in competing stores. “The opening of a single Walmart store in a county lowered average retail wages in that county by between 0.5 and 0.9 percent. . . . And for grocery store employees, the effect of a single new Walmart was a 1.5 percent reduction in earnings.”

In return for low wages, Walmart demands a lot from its own workers. Rosetta Brown worked for Walmart in Illinois. she had a hard time getting 40 hours of work a week. She wanted to work overtime to earn extra money but was seldom allowed to do so. When she asked management for more hours, she was told to make herself available to wok seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

“They want you to be on call. They don’t care about your kids, they don’t care about your family life, they don’t care about nothing, just cater to them,” Brown said.

Many of those at the New York protests were small business owners like Elvin Fernandez, who own Aim Supermarket near where Walmart is considering building one of its stores. “They’re going to kill me,” Fernandez told the New York Daily News.

He could be right, figuratively at least. A study by researchers at Loyola University Chicago found that when Walmart opened a store on the West Side of Chicago in 2006, it caused one-quarter of the businesses in a four-mile radius to close.

As for the jobs that Walmart promises, the same study found that communities lose just as many jobs due to a Walmart opening as are created, so the result is that no new jobs are created.

Other studies concur. According to Brian Paul of Hunter College, “studies from all across the country show that Walmart’s arrival does not bring the increase in jobs and retail spending that the company promises. Instead, Walmart captures spending from existing stores, driving them out of business and replacing existing retail jobs with lower-paying Walmart jobs.”

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