The New Movement Against Wal-Mart

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

Moreover, he continued, "Are the benefits we offer rich benefits? They're probably not the richest benefits in the world."

But he bristled at the widespread criticism that Wal-Mart workers should not have to seek public health benefits but do, or that it is wrong that some of them reportedly rely on food stamps. The company provides less than half of its workers with health coverage.

"We don't put people on welfare. We get them off welfare," he said. "We pay what the market will bear."

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

'How bad does it have to get?'

Many might say Serghini has a point. In a city with over 400,000 on public assistance, the prospect of an estimated 300 new jobs per Wal-Mart store—assuming competitors stayed in business—cannot be lightly dismissed.

Above all, Serghini said, there is a real hunger in the city for deep discounts. He said that, this April, nearby Wal-Marts had tallied $96 million in sales the previous year to city residents. A recent company-sponsored survey showed 62 percent of 800 city respondents wanting stores closer by.

Wal-Mart describes its cut-rate pricing as if it were doing the work of God. Or Marx. "These savings are a lifeline for millions of middle- and lower-income families who live from payday to payday," claimed CEO Scott in one newspaper ad. "Wal-Mart acts as a bargaining agent for these families—achieving on their behalf a negotiating power that they would never have on their own. Wal-Mart harnesses the collective clout of ordinary Americans to make their lives better."

Such collective bargaining power is precisely what critics say Wal-Mart workers need, but not to buy discount socks. Said community advocate Vivian Rothstein, who helped lead the Inglewood fight, "It's circular. People get shitty wages from Wal-Mart, and then they have to shop at Wal-Mart." Scott likened the discounts to giving "a raise" to customers, but Rothstein argued the company's own workers need an actual raise—and the resulting freedom to shop occasionally at, say, Nordstrom.

But losing patience with questions about low wages, Wal-Mart's Serghini finally exclaimed, "If our wages are too low, then government should set the minimum at $20!" The company constantly points out that the federal minimum is only $5.15 an hour.

One of Wal-Mart's most public critics agrees, at least in the sense that government must step up. Congressman George Miller of California, whose widely circulated February 2004 report excoriated the retailer's employment practices, said last week, "Wal-Mart illustrates how easy it is to exploit the weaknesses in our labor laws. They must be strengthened." He said the place to begin was by increasing the penalties employers face for squashing workers' attempts to organize—fines that big companies eat as a cost of business. Without a stronger collective voice, Miller said, workers will continue to be victimized.

"The question is, how bad does it have to get before we get to the point of reform?" he said. With Wal-Mart now the leading corporate contributor to political candidates, most of them employer-friendly Republicans, that day may be quite distant.

Democrats have said that if more higher-income voters expressed their solidarity, reform might become more palatable to politicians. That is where the new New York City crew hopes to come in.

Brooklynite Lupita Gonzalez called back 311 to make sure her views had been reported. But she was told that, without her "service request number," her complaint could not be tracked. The mayor's office would not comment beyond regurgitating Bloomberg's response from March, when he was publicly cornered by reporters. The pro-developer billionaire said then, "This city should be open to everybody. And if you don't want to go to work for somebody, don't. If you don't want to shop there, don't."

He is, obviously, unlikely to support the Wal-Mart No Way campaign. But even successful resisters elsewhere realize it will be a constant battle to keep the giant at bay. In the meantime, they are capitalizing on the company's unintended effect—the diversification and energizing of local activism—to enact stronger processes for community control of labor standards and development.

Said Sikora, "Wal-Mart should be careful what it wishes for. If the company sneaks a store by, the opposition that they face in this city will just snowball."

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