Wal-Mart and Urban America

May 26, 2004

By David Morse

No matter where you stand on the Wal-Mart “issue,” it’s hard to dispute it has a weighty public relations challenge.

The company has been accused of sexual discrimination, hiring illegal workers and violating both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Clean Water Act. Most recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Vermont an endangered place because Wal-Mart plans to install several Supercenters across the state.

But certainly the gravest threat comes from the determination of so many to thwart the company’s expansion into urban America. It eclipsed the news when a bitter fight to install a store was lost in Inglewood, CA. Chicago, New Orleans and the San Francisco Bay Area have staged similar battles. The City of Los Angeles is considering a law that will ban big-box retailers with grocery stores, a frontal assault on Wal-Mart and its plans to develop 40 Supercenters in Southern California.

The message from Wal-Mart detractors is consistent — the company offers substandard wages and benefits and ruthlessly drives its competitors out of business — accusations that translate easily into the language of civil rights.

Said Jesse Jackson, “Let us not forget that Dr. King spent his final days organizing for the right to organize for livable wages, and health care benefits for all. The shadow of his life obligates us to fight Wal-Mart.”

In the words of Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of Saint Sabina’s Church in Chicago and a Wal-Mart opponent, “We have to get away from the mentality that we’re just glad to get a job. A slave job is a slave job.”

Not everyone agrees Wal-Mart hurts cities.

A recent article in Business Week spotlighted the jobs, low prices and tax revenue that Wal-Mart stores have brought to urban communities. The article cited a study conducted by the University of Missouri that found a minimal drop in the number of small businesses after a Wal-Mart opened, yet a drop in retail prices between 5% and 10%. Case in point is Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Wal-Mart moved into a vacant Macy’s store and, according to many local vendors, revived a dilapidated area and drove business to their stores.

The importance of wooing urban consumers is clearly not lost on the corporate giant that insists it has no “urban strategy.” Minorities are well represented in its 2004 annual report, a document that touts a new diversity office, a partnership with the National Council of La Raza and abundant testimonials from minority customers, suppliers and employees.

The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw store is the focus of an entire advertising campaign. Still, the level of enmity and organized opposition to Wal-Mart remains staggering despite the company’s efforts to portray itself as a model corporate citizen.

Moderator’s Comment: Has Wal-Mart’s failure to win over communities in places such as Inglewood been, at least in
part, the result of not fully understanding the history and concerns of minorities in those areas? Why have other retail giants like Costco and Target been seemingly immune to
the critiques heaped on Wal-Mart?

Following Wal-Mart’s defeat in Inglewood, company spokesman Bob McAdam blamed a “small group of Inglewood leaders” and “special interests” for convincing
local residents they “don’t deserve the job opportunities and shopping choices that others in the L.A. area enjoy.”

Wal-Mart’s problem, however, goes well beyond Inglewood; otherwise it would not have captured the imagination of the Reverend Jackson. As he well knows,
centuries of oppression have made African Americans wary of those promising opportunity and ever vigilant when they perceive the slightest degree of the inauthentic. Perhaps Wal-Mart’s
familiar one-size-fits-all refrain of “we’re just trying to serve our customers” wears a little thin with a community that demands to be addressed on its own terms.

David Morse – Moderator

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