The New Movement Against Wal-Mart

Fresh blood joins the battle to keep the mega-retailer out of NYC

The hand-painted signs were still being propped up, but a small crowd had already gathered on the Brooklyn sidewalk. "We're organizing against Wal-Mart," announced Peter Sikora, 30, as he struggled to unfold a portable table on an 85-degree Saturday.

Passerby Lupita Gonzalez dove for a clipboard and filled in her contact information before even reading the literature. When Sikora told her about the group Wal-Mart No Way's call-in campaign, Gonzalez pulled out her cell phone and dialed 311.

"Wal-Mart discriminates against women and destroys good jobs, and it would take away business from local businesses. I don't want it here," she told the operator, who promised to get her message to the mayor's office. Gonzalez, 34, like Sikora, lives on the increasingly trendy strip of Fifth Avenue in northern Park Slope, near two sites the retail supergiant is rumored to be considering for its first store in the city.

Asi Klein of "Wal-Mart No Way!" talking to a passerby in Park Slope
Willie Davis/Veras
Asi Klein of "Wal-Mart No Way!" talking to a passerby in Park Slope

The nation's largest retailer, with $285.2 billion in annual sales at the most recent count, and largest private employer, with 1.2 million workers, has not yet planted its flag in the five boroughs. But it is on a mission to conquer. It is buying full-page ads in community newspapers like the Park Slope Courier to woo the city's consumers. It has won over Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro and some of the City Council, and it is working on skeptical pols like Brooklyn BP Marty Markowitz. It is assessing traffic flow, shopping patterns, and low-wage labor supply, as it does whenever it gets serious. The one thing it has stopped doing is revealing its dream locations. "New York is a very viable marketplace," said spokesperson Mia Masten, "but we don't have any particular sites in mind."

That caginess comes of lessons learned. The suburban behemoth is increasingly provoking communities' fury as it ventures into urban markets. Two months after it declared designs on a Rego Park, Queens, site last December, its plans were sunk by a steely coalition of labor, neighborhood, and small-business forces.

Accusations involve every issue that could possibly apply to a multinational retail corporation: sweatshop wages and factory conditions overseas, child labor here and abroad, increased traffic, environmental destruction, systemic discrimination against women, poverty-level domestic pay, and fervent union busting. Anti-Wal-Mart blogs and websites number in the dozens. All the major unions have an anti-Wal-Mart position or campaign, as do many social-justice groups and elected officials. Thousands of newspaper and television reports and numerous books have chronicled people's ire.

Yet despite the universe of opposition, Wal-Mart has proved nearly invincible. Even after years of hot pursuit by organized labor, not a single one of Wal-Mart's 3,600-plus U.S. stores, employing 1.2 million Americans, is unionized. Wal-Mart continues to dwarf every other corporation in sales, raking in $285.2 billion in its fiscal year ending January 2005. Its stock price had recently stagnated, but it announced plans to re-energize by opening up to 335 new stores in the U.S. this year.

Opponents believe if New Yorkers give it an inch, Wal-Mart will take the whole city. They want to ward off the enemy at the gates. "If Wal-Mart got in, it would take over and become the only place most people could afford to shop," said Sikora, a Cornell graduate who works at a consumer rights group. His aim is to draw more young, liberal professionals like himself—the type who might have campaigned for John Kerry and who wield some political and possibly financial muscle—into a vanguard previously composed of old-school community boards and unions.

Tabling in hipster areas, some 20 to 30 regular volunteers have signed over 1,000 potential reinforcements to an e-alert list and sold hundreds of $20 T-shirts to raise money for a television ad. Now an official nonprofit, they have gotten repeated coverage in the community newspapers where Wal-Mart has bought full-page ads.

But even with fresh blood, Sikora acknowledges, the odds against the resistance are "enormous."

'The hidden cost of cheap underwear'

Matteo Manzella, a meat cutter with Local 342 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, hung out at the sidewalk stand with Sikora and crew on his way to work an afternoon shift at the nearby Key Food. Looking not unlike Hulk Hogan, he proclaimed, "Wal-Mart's got low wages, discrimination, and no benefits! They literally tell their employees to go on welfare for benefits!"

Wal-Mart dismisses UFCW as a selfish "third party" conspiring to gouge consumers with pricey groceries. But those less than dirt-cheap prices enable Manzella to earn a decent living and "great benefits." As a result, he said, he's more than happy to "do a custom order" for any shopper. In 2000 a tiny fellowship of 10 meat cutters in Texas became the only Wal-Mart workers ever to hold a successful vote to unionize. The company eliminated their jobs and stocked factory-cut meat.

"I don't buy nothing from Wal-Mart anymore. I buy all my fishing gear from other places now," Manzella declared.

The activists believe that promoting Manzella's underlying message—that shopping at Wal-Mart has human consequences—is crucial to countering any support the retailer's ads may be stirring among consumers. This month volunteer Daniel Stolzman, who works in film, shot a slick, fast-paced television spot to convey just that point. Eschewing hokey PSA fare for a rather suspenseful narrative, the ad will invite viewers to sign up at the group's URL, It will urge residents to contact Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it is set to debut as the city's election season heats up this fall.

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