Wal-Mart vs. Las Vegas

Las Vegas -- Thirty million tourists a year spend their vacations ensconced in the fantasy-themed resorts lining the Las Vegas Strip, few venturing beyond the neon-drenched gambling corridor. Many don't realize, or don't really care, that 1.3 million people now call the Las Vegas Valley home.Not everyone is oblivious to the desert city's fast-growing suburban sprawl. Big retailers are flocking to Las Vegas, snapping up vast parcels and throwing up concrete monuments to conspicuous consumption. Wal-Mart, the biggest of the big, recently announced plans to build three 200,000-square-foot "supercenters" in the area to complement the seven standard Wal-Mart stores and two Sam's Club warehouses it already operates here. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer with close to 800,000 "associates," plans to open 200 new stores -- 150 of them supercenters -- this year. (Supercenters, covering as much as 230,000 square feet, combine the traditional discount stores with full-service supermarkets.)But Wal-Mart is running into problems in Las Vegas. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 711, which has contracts with all the major grocery chains in Las Vegas and 7,000 members in the area, is planning a massive campaign to keep fiercely nonunion Wal-Mart out of the local grocery market. The union fears that Wal-Mart will grab market share from union supermarket chains, as well as hamper the union's ability to bargain for higher wages and better benefits. After one year, UFCW checkers in Las Vegas make $14.38 an hour, while meat cutters earn $17.54 an hour after a two-year apprenticeship. By contrast, Wal-Mart employees start between $6 and $7 per hour, and 30 percent of them work part time.The UFCW has given up trying to bring Wal-Mart workers into the union fold. Instead, the union is joining forces with small businesses and neighborhood organizers to condemn Wal-Mart's impact on the community as a whole.Although Wal-Mart has already received basic zoning approval for the three supercenters, the UFCW has a trick up its sleeve. At the union's urging, Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny has proposed an ordinance that would thwart Wal-Mart's plans. Under the proposal, a store of more than 100,000 square feet that devotes more than 2,000 square feet to groceries would have to house the general merchandise and food in separate buildings.Ostensibly, the ordinance is aimed at reducing traffic congestion caused by the arrival of one giant store in a neighborhood. But the way it's written, only Wal-Mart would be effected. "This would be a deal-killer for a supercenter," says UFCW President Roberta West, who is meeting with area city leaders to encourage them to impose similar ordinances. This approach has been used successfully in California cities, West says, and a similar ordinance is under consideration in Tucson, Ariz.The UFCW is likely to call on the politically powerful Culinary Union for support and organizing assistance. In addition, its campaign could attract the attention of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who has repeatedly proclaimed Las Vegas the nation's "hottest union city."Bucking national trends, labor has achieved considerable growth in Las Vegas in the '90s. The 47,000-member Culinary Union Local 226, the largest local of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), waged a five-year strike at the Frontier Hotel -- one of the nation's longest work stoppages -- finally winning the battle in October when anti-union owner Margaret Elardi sold the property to union-friendly Phil Ruffin.In December, the Service Employees International Union Local 1107 won an election to organize more than 2,000 nurses, technicians and other workers at Columbia-HCA's Sunrise Hospital, the city's largest. And this summer, the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers Local 162 reached a four-year deal with two large roofing companies, signaling a resurgence of labor's clout in Las Vegas' vibrant residential construction industry.But a campaign against Wal-Mart will be particularly difficult. For 20 years, residents and small-business owners across the country have fought to keep the discount retail giant from putting mom-and-pop stores out of business and turning downtown areas into boarded-up ghost towns. Wal-Mart has won most of the battles, growing into an international monolith that registered $118 billion in sales in 1998.Most of these fights, however, have occurred in rural areas and small cities, where the arrival of a supercenter can have a tangible impact on the community. Isn't a fast-growing metro area like Las Vegas a tougher place to make a case against Wal-Mart? "Businesses here have no idea what's going to happen to them," West says. "You can't compete with Wal-Mart, no matter how good you are."Geoff Schumacher is managing editor of CityLife, Las Vegas' alternative newsweekly.

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