The New Movement Against Wal-Mart

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

Some of the money to fund the ad was raised at a recent mixer hosted by a wealthy friend of Sikora's fiancée and fellow organizer, Claire Tuck, a law student. In an art-filled apartment in the West Village, UFCW organizer Ed Lynch explained, "We're trying to bring together many, many different groups." He sipped a beer with his buddy from the iron workers' union as young professionals edged past with their pastries and wine to catch the view from the 11th-floor terrace. He said UFCW, along with others from the city's Central Labor Council, had begun a multipronged offensive, leafleting at the Staten Island ferry, recruiting support on stretches of mom-and-pop shops, and lobbying pols.

"But we decided this couldn't just be a union-focused campaign," said Lynch. The fight is just too large, he said. "We're trying to educate the consumer. If you think about why that $300 bike is only $159—that it was assembled, probably by a child overseas, definitely by someone who could never afford to buy it—it's harder to want that bike." He leaned in and whispered, "I'm saving this for my speech later, but you have to think about the hidden cost of buying cheap underwear."

The few localities that have successfully fended off Wal-Mart have benefited from clearer-cut battles and smaller, more efficiently aroused constituencies. In Guelph, a town in Canada, opponents have kept the retailer away from its desired location, next to a longtime Jesuit retreat, through 10 years of activism and court battles.

More famously, the low-income, mostly minority community of Inglewood, just west of Los Angeles, trounced the corporation in its first foray into urban America. In 2004 the retailer tried to skirt the land-use approval process by forcing a voter referendum. Despite spending $10 million and boasting that consumer demand would prevail, Wal-Mart won less than 40 percent of the vote.

And recently in Chicago, one proposed Wal-Mart store was rejected by the city council after much local protest, while another was approved. Cities such as San Francisco have enacted bans on the retailer's "supercenter" models, which sell groceries and reportedly take up areas the size of 17 football fields.


'Reputational issues'

Wal-Mart is trying to turn on the charm. Recently its Northeast rep, Philip Serghini, 36, suggested meeting at a Starbucks a few blocks from his home on East 10th Street in Manhattan. "We don't have offices in the city," he explained. He was fit and tan, like a less beefy Ken doll, dressed sportily and toting a backpack. Declaring "I have to try it," he sipped a green-tea Frappuccino as he explained that the cacophony of anti-Wal-Mart criticism does not reflect real wrongdoing so much as the company's "Pollyannaish" neglect of image management. "We recognize we have reputational issues," he said.

He echoed a company comment in a July Wall Street Journal profile of CEO Lee Scott that the quarter-trillion-dollar multinational corporation had been "naive." Shrinking violet no longer, the corporation now has answers for everything, many of which can be found at its public relations website, walmartfacts.com.

On union busting, Serghini punted to his superior Mia Masten. Via cell phone she insisted that none of the 1.2 million employees "want to be unionized." The company touts an "open-door" culture where management embraces complainers. A simple Google search will turn up countless accounts to the contrary. Masten stressed, "We're the norm. Our competitors aren't unionized." But as a recent Times report detailed, competitor Costco pays workers an average of $17 an hour—nearly twice Wal-Mart's average—along with affordable health benefits and a relatively generous pension plan, permits unions, and still turns a hefty profit.

On gender discrimination, Wal-Mart last week tried an ironic flip on the David-Goliath image, asking a federal appeals court to dismiss the famous class-action lawsuit. It claimed that there are just too many plaintiffs—about 1.5 million women—for the company to defend itself against allegations of unfair denial of promotions and lesser pay. No matter that the size of the class is in direct proportion to the size of the mammoth employer. The appeal aside, Wal-Mart claims to have implemented "leadership seminars designed specifically for women" and to have launched other "diversity initiatives."


On sweatshop conditions, publicity materials state, "We require suppliers to ensure that every factory conforms to local workplace laws and that there is no illegal child or forced labor." Critics argue that some countries' "local" standards would seem cruel here, and that Wal-Mart should use its heft to better conditions, not drive down the bottom line.

Wal-Mart's reps complain that its sheer size makes it the easiest target in the world. Its size, however, also turns any of its questionable practices into problems of tremendous, even global, scale. A Pulitzer Prize–winning 2003 Los Angeles Times series documented how Wal-Mart's entry into a market depresses wages generally and shuts down competition, eliminating jobs. It tracked how the company's demand for ever lower prices from suppliers pushes manufacturing overseas, where faster, cheaper production is squeezed from third-world workforces.

Surprisingly, on the issue of domestic wages, Serghini offered some brutal honesty. Although he boasted that Wal-Mart is the nation's leading employer of blacks and Latinos, he explained that the routine hourly gigs most of them have—$9.68 an hour for full-timers and likely much less for part-timers—were never meant to support families. The company acknowledges that many full-time workers will probably earn less than $20,000 per year, while critics have gone as low as $11,700. Said Serghini, "We hire nontraditional employees—hundreds of thousands out of high school, a huge bloc of seniors."

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