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Wal-Mart Shops for Voters

The super-store's 'lowest possible prices' may come at a steep price for one community.
 
 
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Imagine that you earn $8 an hour working for Wal-Mart. Then, you learn that the store is recruiting workers, at $10 an hour, to convince neighbors and shoppers to vote against a law that would limit the size of "big- box'' stores in unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Great, you think. I'll apply. But Wal-Mart won't hire its own workers because the corporation isn't sure it's legal to use them to promote a political campaign.

When you realize that Wal-Mart will pay higher wages to those campaigning to keep your wages low, you get angry -- which is how I've learned about the Arkansas retailer's countywide plans to repeal the ordinance.

Last June, the Contra Costa Country Board of Supervisors passed the ban when it recognized that Wal-Mart's seductive low prices come with hidden costs to residents. The retailer's subsistence wages drive down the pay of other workers; its huge super-centers undermine local small businesses and create more traffic congestion. Taxpayers, moreover, end up paying for workers' health care because they can't afford costly benefits on such low pay.

In response, Wal-Mart -- which never takes no for an answer -- immediately parachuted in paid workers to gather 27,000 signatures to force supervisors to either rescind the ban or place the issue before the voters. Supervisors have put the question on the March 2 ballot.

To fight off these restrictions, Wal-Mart has just launched a campaign to convince the community to vote "no." At its Martinez, Pittsburg and Antioch stores, Wal-Mart has hung banners and posters advertising its new "Consumer Action Network (CAN)," a rather transparent effort to persuade shoppers to vote against the limiting ordinance.

Last week, workers at Wal-Mart handed out flyers that describe CAN as a "good government" program. (Many low-income shoppers, who receive some form of government assistance, might mistakenly think CAN is a government-sponsored program.)

In exchange for signing a membership card (and providing your personal information), you get "a personal membership card, free newsletters, important bulletins and an invitation to special events."

You also get a chance to fill out a voter registration application, which is conveniently mailed to Wal-Mart's CAN, rather than to the registrar of voters. If you want more information, you are referred to an 800 telephone number.

But 20 calls to the number elicited the same response: "Only 'Kathy' knows about the program, she's on the other line, so just leave your name and number." Is it conceivable that Wal-Mart has hired only one person who is familiar with CAN? Or is this just a ploy to gather names and phone numbers to enlist shoppers in its political campaign?

Meanwhile, a coalition of community activists is gearing up to support the ordinance. They include the nonprofit group ACORN, which promotes affordable housing and open space; union members; and religious, environmental and "smart growth" organizations. But they face a formidable enemy -- the largest corporation in the world, which has unlimited funds to reach their intended goal of building 40 new super-centers in California.

Supervisor John Gioia knows that "Wal-Mart will have a great advantage. It will also turn it into an anti-union campaign. So we need to appeal to the good sense of Contra Costa County voters and explain that this is about losing open space and taxpayers subsidizing Wal-Mart. It's also about Contra Costa County -- not Wal-Mart executives in Bentonville, Ark. -- having the right to make its own decisions about local planning. "

Now, the challenge is to convince Contra Costa County voters that the lowest possible prices come at a steep price for the entire community.