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Wal-Mart Invasion: How the Corporate Behemoth Forced Its Way into Your City

America’s mega-retailer can’t boost profits unless it gains entry to America’s largest cities. Against stiff resistance, it’s still trying.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the most eye-catching graphic in the Wal-Mart annual report was the “measles map” of the United States, in which each dot represented a company store or distribution center. At first, they were all clustered in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, Wal-Mart’s home turf, but then, year by year, the map charted a seemingly inexorable, disease-like spread as state after state became densely covered with scores of little black dots. The Midwest and South were largely dot-filled by the end of the 1980s; New England and much of the Pacific Coast were spotted less than a decade later. Soon, more than 4,000 dots filled the U.S. map, taking up almost every available space.

Wal-Mart executives dropped the measles map in 1994, because, well, a lot of people thought of the company’s growth as something close to a cancerous malady corrupting the body politic. Why reinforce that imagery? More important, though, the dot-filled graphic was not quite as impressive as it seemed. The dots never made it into Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., or other Northern and Western cities. And these urban markets constituted at least 20 percent of the nation’s buying power, with plenty of hard-pressed consumers who wanted cheap food, clothing, and hard goods. From Wal-Mart’s point of view, those out-of-reach consumers represented somewhere between $80 billion and $100 billion in potential sales.

Wal-Mart was barred from these big blue cities because a coalition of unions, liberals, and environmentalists, including a large slice of those elected officials representing African American and Latino communities, said no. More recently, though, Wal-Mart has been banging on these doors again -- this time around, marketing itself as an environmentally sensitive, job-providing panacea for urban America. While doing nothing to alter its exploitative labor practices, Wal-Mart has worked hard to woo an incongruous collection of liberal constituencies, including enviros, building-trade unions, and inner-city pols. They’ve gained a limited entry -- one store here, another there -- to some cities they couldn’t crack half a decade ago. Whether they can gain more -- flooding into the cities and bringing down the wages of hundreds of thousands of unionized urban grocery workers in the process -- remains to be seen.

Throughout much of the last decade, liberals were able to blunt Wal-Mart’s drive into urban America. Southern California was ground zero in this fight. In 2002, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build at least 40 Supercenters in the state, many in Los Angeles and other consumer -- rich coastal regions. Management at such old-line supermarkets as Safeway and Kroger were so fearful of this Wal-Mart invasion that in late 2003, they proposed slashing wages and benefits to meet the new competitive standard set by Wal-Mart if and when the giant retailer built its stores -- precipitating a four-month strike by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The strike ended in a decisive defeat for the union’s 70,000 Southern California grocery workers. The chains forced the UFCW to accept a new contract that reduced pensions, capped health-insurance payouts, and instituted a two-tier wage structure that made it almost impossible for new hires to earn a decent wage.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart barreled ahead with its expansion plans. In Inglewood, a declining African American and Latino city enfolded within Los Angeles, Wal-Mart found the City Council unreceptive. The company then organized and funded a local group called Citizens Committee to Welcome Wal-Mart to Inglewood, which quickly gathered enough signatures to require the city to put on the ballot Wal-Mart’s own 71-page planning document. Voters were asked to approve Wal-Mart’s stores as designed, without possibility of a public hearing or city review.

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