Wal-Mart’s Manifest Destiny

Intent on Western expansion, the world’s largest company turns democracy upside-down — but now, communities are fighting back

  • A new Wal-Mart Supercenter lies at the foot of the Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction

    Christopher Tomlinson
  • Lizette Hernandez and Vanessa Bransburg were part of a grassroots effort to stop Wal-Mart from coming to Inglewood, California

    Tim Sullivan
  • Danny Tabor stands across the street from the Inglewood, California, site where Wal-Mart wanted to build a supercenter

    Tim Sullivan
  • Wal-Mart growth 1962-2003

    Matt Moody, copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission
  • Jeannie Timber of Taosenos Against Wal-Mart Super Store speaks at a Feb. 17, 2003, rally in Taos, New Mexico

    Megan Bowers
  • The Rev. Altagracia Perez urged parishioners to read the fine print in the Wal-Mart proposal, and vote no

    Tim Sullivan
  • Anti- Wal-Mart literature flooded Inglewood mailboxes before the vote on Measure 04-A

  • Pro- Wal-Mart literature flooded Inglewood mailboxes before the vote on Measure 04-A

 

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA — It seems like the perfect site for a shopping center: A burning slab of undeveloped blacktop spreads over 60 acres, while traffic rushes by on all sides; houses stack up the surrounding hills and into the smoggy horizon. The people who live in those houses are tired of driving to nearby cities like Gardena, Torrance and Los Angeles to dine and buy clothes and widgets. Besides, Inglewood could use an economic shot in the arm. Downtown is dead. The Lakers basketball team moved out of the arena next door, years ago. And all the unemployed young people need jobs.

Inglewood, a city of about 112,000 residents, mostly black and Latino, butts up against Los Angeles International Airport, just a few breezy miles from the Pacific Ocean. Despite its reputation as an extension of inner-city L.A., Inglewood functions like a small town, with its tightly knit community, proud middle class, subtle provincialism — and insecurities about jobs and municipal revenue, which is why the proposed shopping center, sweetly named the HomeStretch at Hollywood Park, held so much promise.

Inglewood resident Danny Tabor saw the potential. The space might have been filled by businesses he likes — maybe a Chili’s restaurant, an Outback Steakhouse, or an Old Navy clothing store. As a former city councilman, he knew a shopping center could bring in needed tax revenue. After all, he was on the council when it approved a Costco, and now, he says, he’s addicted to shopping there.

But this spring, Tabor helped lead a local uprising against the shopping center proposal, because there was one problem: The only surefire tenant, and the primary backer, was Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The company planned to build one of its giant, 200,000-square-foot Supercenters — the combined discount-pharmacy-grocery stores that Wal-Mart is planting in communities around the West.

From suburban Denver, Colo., to Washington’s apple country, from the resort blowout of Park City, Utah, to the faux-adobe subdivisions of New Mexico, Wal-Mart’s aggressive expansion has become a symbol of how big-box retailers and franchise chains invade communities, bringing a range of impacts and reactions. Some local people welcome Wal-Mart, with its low prices and employment opportunities. Others resist, worrying that the corporate giant will siphon away profits and ruin local businesses, leaving a sprawling, homogenized commercial landscape and a retail graveyard on Main Street. They are wary of Wal-Mart’s low wages, and its reputation for mistreating its workers and discriminating against women.

In self-defense, many Western communities have adopted "anti-big-box ordinances" that require Wal-Mart to pay impact fees, limit the size of its stores, and abide by other restrictions. But the company has refused to back down.

Wal-Mart has threatened lawsuits, sued, and, when that hasn’t worked, it has taken to what may be its most dangerous practice: co-opting local democracy itself. In community after community, it has gathered enough petition signatures to put the issue to voters, overwhelming its opposition with millions of dollars in advertising and mailers, frosting its agenda in a populist coating. The practice has triggered deep concerns about the power of corporations to hijack local decision-making.

In Inglewood, Wal-Mart took this approach to the next level, attempting to exempt itself from all of the local planning rules. As one opponent here puts it, "Wal-Mart was trying to establish a sovereign state inside the city of Inglewood."

Yet here, local opponents beat Wal-Mart at its own game. Today, as Danny Tabor sits at a table at Bourbon Street Fish, he can look across the street and see the 60-acre space where Wal-Mart wasn’t allowed to build. To him, the empty space represents neither a lost opportunity for low-priced meals or shopping, nor a missing municipal gold mine. Instead, it symbolizes his community’s stand against the biggest corporation in the world.

"Democracy worked for people in this sense," Tabor says, "against big business."

Stories about Wal-Mart typically mention that the first Wal-Mart was a five-and-dime in a small town in Arkansas, opened by Sam Walton in the 1950s — precisely the kind of mom-and-pop store now threatened by today’s Wal-Mart empire. From its tiny beginning, Wal-Mart has grown into a retail behemoth through its single-minded focus on slashing prices, cutting costs, and moving huge volumes of merchandise.

Wal-Mart tries to project a friendly image, with greeters at every store wearing smiley-face pins. Travelers in RVs are encouraged to camp overnight in the parking lots. The corporation pours millions of dollars into scholarships, the United Way and recycling programs.

But today’s Wal-Mart is a species of corporation never seen before. It is the world’s largest company, with annual sales of more than $250 billion, "a sum greater than the economies of all but 30 of the world’s nations," reports The New York Times. In the United States, Wal-Mart is the number-one seller of clothing, toys, home furnishings, home textiles, housewares, tableware, DVDs, vacuum cleaners, televisions and video game consoles, and it has the nation’s largest private trucking fleet, reports the Denver Post.

Soon after it launched its Supercenters in 1988, Wal-Mart also became the nation’s leading grocer. The nation’s approximately 1,448 Wal-Mart discount stores have been joined by 1,506 Supercenters, and the number increases by dozens nearly every week. To find space for its outlets, which include Sam’s Club warehouse stores and small Neighborhood Market grocery stores, the corporation buys more than $1 billion worth of land per month, according to The Economist.

In the West, Wal-Mart’s expansion is nothing short of a stampede. In Utah, Wal-Mart took out $130 million worth of commercial building permits in 2003, according to a University of Utah study — 12 percent of the state’s nonresidential total. Westwide, Wal-Mart opened 42 discount stores and Supercenters last year. In California alone, it plans to open another 40 Supercenters — each larger than five football fields — within six years. And as Wal-Mart has grown, its image has changed. It has been accused of "predatory pricing" — coming in initially with lower prices, killing off the competition, and then raising prices. The relentless pressure on its 21,000 suppliers to lower their costs has contributed to the trend of U.S. manufacturers moving jobs to Latin America and Asia. And it has become abundantly clear that Wal-Mart’s low prices are built on the backs of its 1.2 million employees.

Wal-Mart’s low wages also force its competitors to lower their pay in order to compete, says Harold Meyerson, an L.A. Weekly editor and Washington Post columnist, and as a result, a vital chunk of society is withering. Now that many manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, retail jobs support much of the working class — but thanks to Wal-Mart, Meyerson writes, even retail wages are shrinking.

"We have lost something in Los Angeles, something huge: a decently paid working class ... The loss is national as well," Meyerson writes. "Wal-Mart is both the leading metaphor and No. 1 economic force in this downward spiral."

But although workers and local governments are becoming more concerned, attempts to get the retailer to increase its wages might as well be demands to raise the "always low prices." It’s a part of the equation that’s not up for discussion, as sacrosanct as the company’s growth itself.

One hundred and twenty miles east of Inglewood is California’s first Wal-Mart Supercenter. Opened this March in the desert resort town of La Quinta, the store sits a few hundred yards down the road from the old, non-super Wal-Mart, which went dark when the new one opened. Already, the Supercenter is the kind of place where motorists camp out waiting for vacant parking spots and you have to stand in line for the bathroom.

La Quinta, like many fast-growing Western resort communities, is a place with its lines drawn: The box stores are separated from the boutiques, and the wealthy and their golf courses are gated in, away from the working class, which consists largely of Mexican immigrants.

But they all meet at Wal-Mart, where elderly Anglos push carts among Latina clerks and shelf stockers.

Cashier Cecilia Juarez says she likes the work OK, but her co-worker, Maria Cuevas, says, "I don’t like it, because they don’t pay much." Cuevas, a cashier who started working at the Supercenter two months ago, says she earns $7.25 an hour. Like many other Wal-Mart employees, she’s a working mother, and her wages don’t go far. But, as Juarez says, there’s not much else available.

The city of La Quinta was happy to welcome the Supercenter, says Assistant City Manager Mark Weiss. Other cities, however, have felt quite differently.

In early 2001, Calexico, Calif., across the Mexican border from Mexicali, became one of the first cities in the state to establish an ordinance dealing with big-box stores. City Attorney Michael Rood says local grocers and unions presented the template for an ordinance prohibiting stores larger than 150,000 square feet that sold more than a small amount of groceries. The city council went along with the idea, Rood says, because it wanted to protect local grocers.

In response, Wal-Mart circulated petitions, and garnered enough signatures to put the ordinance up for a public vote in the fall of 2001. Wal-Mart reportedly invested about $140,000 in the campaign, creating a nice-sounding front group called "Calexico Families Against Higher Prices" that reportedly conducted phone surveys, asking personal questions about local grocers and insinuating that they were bad people. In the end, the voters sided with the corporation by a margin of 2-to-1. Wal-Mart plans to break ground in a couple of months, Rood says.

To the north, the board of supervisors in Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay area, approved an anti-Supercenter ordinance similar to Calexico’s in 2003. Again, Wal-Mart circulated petitions and put the issue on the ballot. It also created the so-called "Wal-Mart Customer Action Network," and recruited members at three existing discount stores in the county. In exchange for signing up, about 10,000 customers got a personal membership card, free newsletters, bulletins and an invitation to special events, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Members also got voter registration forms, so they would be sure to be able to vote in the company-backed referendum.

As Wal-Mart’s Contra Costa campaign ratcheted up, the central issue became clear to county supervisor John Gioia: Does local government have the ability to regulate development? "For us, it’s about setting the terms and conditions under which big boxes enter our community," Gioia says.

The campaign became a storm of spin, messaging and money — for both sides. Contra Costa County spent $800,000 on the campaign against Wal-Mart’s initiative. But Wal-Mart spent $2 million, a county record for a ballot measure. In March, residents voted 55 to 45 percent to knock down the big-box ordinance.

"So, they outspent us. I think it was as simple as that," Gioia says. "A complex issue like this is hard to argue in a limited campaign. Planning issues shouldn’t be turned into marketing."

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, defends its tactics. "Legislative bodies are unfairly targeting Wal-Mart. That’s why we do referendums or lawsuits," says Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos. "It’s about governments treating everyone equal and fair."

The use of the ballot box to override local and state government decisions has become common throughout the West. A decade ago, California coastal communities rallied to fight sprawl, using the state’s initiative process to overturn bad planning decisions. Since then, says Larry Kosmont, a Southern California land-use and economics consultant, California voters have decided some 1,000 land-use related initiatives. At their best, initiatives offer citizens a way to influence decisions from which they have been excluded by bureaucrats and elected officials. But "ballot-box planning" can be unhealthy, Kosmont says, because "it hands a decision to people who aren’t necessarily paying attention to the details." Government works best when it forces quarreling interests to reach compromises, and that takes time, he adds. Ballot-box planning, in contrast, isolates decisions, and the result is always an absolute yes or no.

Ballot-box planning has also become a handy tool for corporations. With millions to invest in public-relations campaigns, and armies of loyal shoppers, Wal-Mart has grabbed hold of the grassroots, and not just in California.

In Taos, N.M., for example, the city council approved a new zoning code in 1999 that quashed Wal-Mart’s plan to expand an existing discount store to a Supercenter. Wal-Mart responded with a campaign using slogans first coined by labor organizer Cesar Chavez, such as Si se puede or "yes, we can." The company gathered 7,000 signatures on petitions supporting the store. While the council stood up to the pressure, Wal-Mart hasn’t given up: It now wants to build a Supercenter on the outskirts of town.

In Fort Collins, Colo., developers used a manufactured grassroots campaign, fueled with cash, to convince voters to pass a ballot initiative overturning the city council’s 1996 decision to reject a Supercenter. The opposition was preparing a lawsuit that challenged the ballot initiative, when Wal-Mart supporters brought in their own lawyers. They threatened a countersuit that would have held organizers personally responsible for stopping the project. Wal-Mart foes backed down. Fort Collins now has a Supercenter — and a locally owned grocery store has closed.

The tactic doesn’t always work: Voters in Glendale, Ariz., defeated a ballot measure introduced by Wal-Mart that would have overturned a city council decision to rule out a Supercenter. But almost always, Wal-Mart has won. "When it comes to ballot-box planning, the question is: Is this really what it was intended for?" asks Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, who points out that other corporations have defeated smaller foes with the same method.

With its strip of well-patronized box stores along Century Avenue, breezy Inglewood seems like an unlikely stage for the most spectacular political battle yet between Wal-Mart and local community foes. Many of Inglewood’s working-class residents would gladly save money on groceries and other necessities, and the community’s high unemployment rate suggests that the town should be eager for the jobs.

But Inglewood is also a strong union town, with an estimated 10,000 households that include a union member. Many families moved here to work in aerospace and education, as well as in the chain groceries. As a result, the unions have a strong role in local politics.

So early last year, when Wal-Mart and its partner, Rothbart Development, came forward with the HomeStretch Supercenter proposal, the Inglewood City Council hastily drafted a generic big-box ordinance that banned stores larger than 150,000 square feet that sold more than a limited amount of groceries. Once again, Wal-Mart began to gather signatures and threatened to sue. The council backed down, rescinding the ordinance. As the opposing sides marshaled their forces, a crucial seat on the council was up for grabs in the spring election, and the rest of the council members were evenly divided over whether to allow a Supercenter.

Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, says that when the union interviews city council candidates, a standard question is: Do you support a Wal-Mart in Inglewood? "If the answer is yes," she says, "they’re not going to get an endorsement."

The union found a candidate: Ralph Franklin, a former grocery clerk, a Local 770 vice president, and a Wal-Mart hater. "I am a victim of Wal-Mart," says Franklin, who came to Inglewood from a town in Kansas, where a Wal-Mart invasion wiped out several existing businesses, he says. The union thrust Franklin onto the campaign trail in an election that became entirely about Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, the union was leading 70,000 Southern California grocery workers on strike against the traditional grocery chains, demanding guarantees that the chains wouldn’t slash their wages and benefits to compete with Wal-Mart. The strike forced the workers’ issues into the headlines.

Ralph Franklin defeated his pro-Wal-Mart opponent, and Wal-Mart gave up working on a proposal that the new Inglewood council might reject. Instead, it concentrated on wooing the public. The company crafted "Measure 04-A," a 71-page plan for the HomeStretch shopping center, and started gathering signatures to put it on the ballot.

Wal-Mart’s plan, says Inglewood City Administrator Mark Weinberg, "would have superseded all local control."

The plan would have allowed Wal-Mart to do its own environmental and traffic reviews, instead of the city. Down the road, says Weinberg, Wal-Mart or the developer could have changed the style of its signs, the setbacks or other aspects of the development, and the city couldn’t have done anything about it. To change the terms of the plan, the city would have had to hold another election and win the approval of two-thirds of the voters.

It was a new frontier in ballot-box planning, according to Kosmont: "I haven’t seen this kind of measure that would circumvent all processes." Nonetheless, Wal-Mart found a supportive community leader in David Stewart, the president of the Inglewood Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, who helped lead a citizens’ group to get the measure on the ballot. Like Franklin, Stewart carries strong memories of Wal-Mart from his hometown, except that his are sweet, not sour.

"I grew up in Wal-Mart country," says Stewart, who moved to Inglewood from Mississippi, where he says the corporation was involved in improving his community. "I don’t view them as the big, bad bully." Stewart helped organize the petition drives, which collected more than 10,000 signatures on Inglewood sidewalks.

In an attempt to build an army of support that included greater Los Angeles, the company hired Kerman Maddox, a locally famous political consultant and TV personality, to spread the word about a recently opened discount store in nearby Baldwin Hills — a "good Wal-Mart story," as Kanelos puts it. And, playing to the predominantly black communities in South L.A. and Inglewood, Wal-Mart joined organizations like the Greater Los Angeles African-American Chamber of Commerce.

Wal-Mart’s CEO, Lee Scott, even sat down for a lengthy interview on the local public TV station. The show was underwritten by Wal-Mart. The host, Tavis Smiley, read some e-mails from angry opponents. "Tavis, when Wal-Mart touts its commitments to diversity in their promo spots on your show, don’t you realize you’re being played?" read one e-mail. "They’re using you as their little black pawn."

To which CEO Scott replied, "The people who wrote those e-mails, I would guess, do not know Wal-Mart. Our company is really about stores and clubs. It’s about people in those stores and clubs. And I think when people get to know the people in those stores and clubs, they tend to like ’em, and like them being in their community."

But Measure 04-A was clearly driven by a corporate, not a community, agenda. Stewart, who deflected most questions about citizen involvement in the campaign, couldn’t remember the name of the pro-development citizens’ group. No wonder, since it morphed over time, from the "Citizens Committee to Welcome Wal-Mart to Inglewood" on the initiative itself to the "Committee to Welcome The HomeStretch at Hollywood Park Shopping Center" on some of the last-minute mailings. The address of the "citizens" group was listed as a "suite" in a downtown office building, but proved to be nothing more than a post office box.

Taken aback by Wal-Mart’s unprecedented move to establish itself in Inglewood, the Local 770 geared up for a monumental fight. "Everybody saw this Inglewood battle as the watershed battle," says the union’s Maynard. "If Wal-Mart can do this here, they can do this anywhere."

At first, the opposition came mostly from the labor union — after all, the United Food and Commercial Workers had been fighting Wal-Mart proposals all over California. In Inglewood, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor poured in its support and its money. Then, from its headquarters in downtown L.A., the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocate for "living wages," offered its assistance. Union reps, workers and alliance organizers knocked on doors and met with community leaders, and the momentum began to shift.

Danny Tabor, the former city councilman, had been a Wal-Mart shopper until he saw Measure 04-A. The fact that Wal-Mart was avoiding the process that Costco and all the other big-boxes had gone through irked him, so he stopped shopping there, and started explaining the issue to others. "Ours was an education campaign," Tabor says.

Elionai Padilla, a grocery worker who had taken part in the Southern California strike, followed up his months on the picket line by going door-to-door in Inglewood, warning residents that Measure 04-A could mean low wages and meager benefits, not just for Wal-Mart workers, but for other retail workers as well. Often, he says, he was met with indignation and hostility from people who really wanted Wal-Mart in their town.

"I said, ‘Let me tell you something, I’m just fighting for my rights and my future,’ " Padilla says. "Especially Hispanic people, when you explain to them, some of them keep quiet and some of them start crying."

Maynard also saw the change. "Along the way, the community stepped in to help us. It became very organic. I’ve never seen people outside of our usual world fighting for this."

People began to see that Wal-Mart was giving them only one side of the story. Many also came to believe that the company was targeting their town because it thought it could find cheap labor among its black and Latino residents. Eventually, much of Inglewood’s powerful clergy joined the fight.

The Rev. Altagracia Perez of Holy Faith Episcopal Church, who already had an interest in economic justice issues, urged her congregation – many of whom were eager to see a Supercenter in Inglewood — to explore just what the 71 pages of Measure 04-A would do. She said people in Inglewood wanted jobs so badly that they didn’t stop to consider how Wal-Mart could drag everyone down.

Perez talked to other ministers, most of whom were at first hesitant to get in the way of economic development, about how Wal-Mart was attempting an end run around the city’s planning process. Many churches, including the Faithful Central Bible Church, along with organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, changed their public stands on the issue.

"When they realized it wasn’t about a store, it was about the process," Perez says, "that’s what made it safe. It wasn’t a big business thing."

Wal-Mart also made mistakes in Inglewood. Measure 04-A was a jungle of subsections, statute references and site plans. It was hard for people to understand, and that generated suspicion.

Even Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, who backed Wal-Mart and endorsed the measure in mailings and commercials, acknowledges that voters "resented the 71 pages that took everything out of the hands of the council."

On April 6, despite outspending its opponents at least 5 to 1, Wal-Mart lost. Inglewood voters shot down Measure 04-A by a 3-to-2 margin. Corporate Manifest Destiny hit a wall.

Over the past few months, Inglewood’s victory seems to have emboldened other city leaders in the West.

In California alone, nearly a dozen towns and counties have adopted anti-big-box ordinances. The L.A. City Council is preparing to consider an ordinance that would restrict stores larger than 100,000 square feet that sell significant amounts of groceries in struggling neighborhoods, where the city has invested in public housing and businesses. Josh Kamensky, a legislative deputy in the office of L.A. Councilman Eric Garcetti, predicts that big-box stores, with their low wages and paltry benefits, would damage the city’s investments in these neighborhoods.

Wal-Mart’s Kanelos is angry that the city has singled out Wal-Mart. Consumers, Kanelos says, "do not want government reducing their shopping choices. America was built on open competition and that’s what consumers want."

Many Westerners are beginning to realize that the actual cost of shopping at Wal-Mart is much higher than the numbers on the price tags, however. In Idaho Falls, where Wal-Mart plans to build the town’s second Supercenter, Post-Register publisher Jerry Brady suggested in a recent editorial that his city needed a new entrance sign reading, "Welcome to Wal-Mart Falls, Idaho, where we’re willing to work cheap."

While there has been little local opposition to Wal-Mart, Brady says that when he heard about Inglewood, "I was encouraged and surprised. I think it’s good somebody had the courage to (stand up to the company)."

In southern Oregon, the neighboring communities of Central Point and Medford have recently defeated proposed Supercenters. "It’s clear from seeing the Inglewood case that they’re running into problems everywhere," says Becca Croft, whose group, Central Point First Inc., was created to fight Wal-Mart.

Like other anti-Wal-Mart organizations, Croft’s group has become a broader political force. In Taos, N.M., where Wal-Mart is pushing its new proposal, Taoseños Against Wal-Mart Super Store is encouraging residents to keep a close eye on their leaders. Local democracy, says group member Fritz Hahn, "requires citizens to go to meetings, and meet with their councilors … People show up for the fire, but what we need is kindling."

But even with invigorated opposition, the corporate giant remains the undeniable victor: Millions of people still shop at Wal-Marts every day, and for every Supercenter proposal that is defeated, dozens more are approved.

Even in Inglewood, the promise of low prices is too good to shelve completely. The victory over Wal-Mart may not be permanent. Only 11,624 people voted in the referendum, a small fraction of Inglewood’s population.

Mayor Dorn desperately wants Wal-Mart to try again. "The city needs these 60 acres to be developed," he says. "The city needs these jobs. The city needs $3 to $5 million in sales tax."

So the Inglewood city government plans to ask Wal-Mart to put together another proposal — this time, for just a regular-size discount store.

Tim Sullivan writes from Portland, Oregon.



This story was made possible by the support of the EMA Foundation.