Wal-Mart Wants Your Job

As the Retailing Behemoth Prepares to Open Its First Store in the Twin Cities Metro, Neighborhoods and Workers Brace Themselves for the Wal-Mart Treatment: Low Wages, Union Busting, and a Big, Friendly Smile

The southern California labor dispute has financially crippled the UFCW. The union spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support its California workers and some local unions were forced to mortgage their offices in order to raise cash. "Their treasury is gone," notes Milkman. "They had built a war chest but it's gone."

The California strike could prove to be a watershed moment for grocery workers. Just as the failure of the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota, in the mid-'80s symbolized the demise of the once-powerful meatpacking unions, the southern California work stoppage may be remembered years from now as portending the end of decent retail jobs. "Employers in the unionized private sector are definitely paying attention," says Milkman, noting that less than 10 percent of non-government employees are now organized. "Companies are clearly going to use this as a template for demands elsewhere."

 

On the day of the Wal-Mart opening in Inver Grove Heights, as hundreds of shoppers line up inside to get autographs from Minnesota Wild center Sergei Zholtok, UFCW Local 789 is staging a protest. It's a bone-rattling cold afternoon, with the wind chill dipping to minus 25 degrees, and just six people have shown up. They stand at the intersection of Cahill Avenue and Concord Boulevard, in the shadow of Wal-Mart, with signs that read "Welcome to Low Wages" and "What Cost to Neighborhoods?" Most cars passing by simply ignore them. A few honk. One guy in a pickup pulls over and chides them for criticizing Wal-Mart.

Local 789 is waging a lonely battle. It is attempting to educate the public about Wal-Mart's pernicious impact before the company can swallow all of its members' jobs. Since November, in anticipation of the opening of the Midway store, the union has been organizing meetings of concerned citizens and door-knocking in the neighborhood. Besides concern that Wal-Mart will kill off the crop of small, ethnic retailers that has popped up along nearby University Avenue, union members are particularly distressed because both a Cub and a Rainbow outlet operate in the same shopping complex where the new store will open. The fledgling group has put together a sort of Wal-Mart manifesto, calling on the retailer to regularly meet with Midway residents, hire a majority of its employees from the surrounding neighborhood, and pay wages of no less than $9.50 an hour, among other things. The goal is to convince politicians, area businesses, and residents to endorse these principles and then pressure Wal-Mart to embrace them.

Local 789 has no illusions that Wal-Mart will actually agree to such demands, but it hopes to gather enough support to get the company's attention and perhaps spur some organizing activity. "At the end of the day we don't see Wal-Mart as exclusively a union issue," says Chris Conry, who is leading the campaign. "Wal-Mart has an impact on everybody."

Conry and others argue that Wal-Mart will decimate smaller businesses along the University Avenue corridor, destroy living-wage jobs, and ultimately lead to higher prices for everyone. There is some evidence to back up this assertion. Iowa State's Ken Stone recently completed a study of the economic impact of Wal-Mart Supercenters on existing businesses in Mississippi, where the retailer has long been a dominant presence. Analyzing sales tax data, he and two other researchers determined that sales at existing grocery stores fell by 19 percent in the five years after a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened, while business at general-merchandise stores dropped by 12 percent during that same time period. "When Wal-Mart comes in and plants a Supercenter and it does $70 million a year, it doesn't come out of thin air," Stone notes. "It comes out of somebody else's cash register."

The city of St. Paul has little power to influence the company's business practices. Because Wal-Mart is not seeking any subsidies for the store, it's mostly free to operate as it pleases. "They won't put their hand out because they know that it comes with strings attached," notes Seventh Ward City Council member Kathy Lantry. In July, three council members, including Lantry, sent Wal-Mart a letter asking the company not to sell guns at the Midway store, to equip its shopping carts with technology that will prevent them from leaving the parking lot, and to pay a living wage. Wal-Mart acceded to the first two requests and ignored the last.

Some anti-Wal-Mart activists have taken matters into their own hands. In mid-February, the shell of the Midway store was vandalized. According to the St. Paul Police Department, somebody entered the building by kicking in a window. Then they proceeded to throw paint all over the walls and sabotage tools and equipment. According to the St. Paul Police Department, more than $10,000 worth of damage was done. "Right now the case has no major leads," says Commander Mike Morehead.

An e-mail message sent to City Pages and other local media outlets on February 20 claimed that the destruction was politically motivated. "This action was necessary in the face of Wall-mart's (sic) extreme oppression of its workers and total disregard for community," the note read. "Wal-mart is a key player in corporate dominance of people worldwide. Wal-mart is not welcome in our community; Wal-mart is not welcome anywhere. We will not stop these actions."

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