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Clash of Cultures: Wal-Mart in Flagstaff

by Thomas Fischermann Saturday, Jul. 09, 2005 at 2:55 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

"A scandal occurred at the flashpoint of the campaign. Wal-Mart placed an advertisement that showed the 1933 book burning at the Berlin opera plaza. Whoever prohibits Wal-Mart prohibits freedom of thought. Wal-Mart apologized for its bad taste.."

CLASH OF CULTURES

Local retailers could lose their stores when Wal-Mart comes. In the US, unions and citizen groups join together against the supermarket corporation. Chronicle of a first battle

By Thomas Fischermann

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT, 26/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2005/26/Wal-Mart.]

At 9:30 PM Becky Daggert swallowed the lump in her throat, went to the stage and conceded defeat: “We didn’t lose here against some local association,” she shouted to the little group of disappointed citizens who gathered for a celebration at the Orpheum theater. “We failed in a campaign waged against us with hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The results of the latest citizen initiative were made public in the town of Flagstaff with 50,000 souls in northern Arizona. A new Wal-Mart supercenter may be built. The city council and Becky Daggett’s citizen initiative (“Friends of the Future of Flagstaff”) sought to banish such “big boxes” and promote a “new urbanism,” a space-saving, landscape-friendly and ecologically minded kind of urban growth. The decision was close, 51 to 49 percent; voter participation was 60 percent. “As a neighbor, Wal-Mart wants to be able to influence the candidates in the next city council election,” one activist grumbled who had begun taking down the posters in the Orpheum theater. The snack trays with pieces of cheese, raw carrots and broccoli crowns were untouched. The party was over.

THE TYPICAL WAL-MART SUPERCENTER IS THE SIZE OF 18 FOOTBALL FIELDS

The defeat of Flagstaff is hardly a trivial matter for Paul Blank. Blank works in Washington, six flying hours from Flagstaff and is campaign director for the retail trade and food union UFCW. Blank has great hopes in people like Becky Daggett. He sees her as the great secret weapon of the union movement. However, active citizens are not usually in unions. “Groups like these have formed against Wal-Mart across the country,” he reports. “We count hundreds.”

Paul Blank’s optimism has to do with his past. In the most recent American presidential election campaign, he was the policy director for Howard Dean who could have been chosen the top democratic candidate and caused a great stir in the pre-election campaign through citizen initiatives and Internet campaigns. With similar means, Blank now wants to solve one of the most pressing problems of unions. What can they do against Wal-Mart? Against the 5 billion sales giant with its 3200 stores in the U.S. and 1100 more worldwide? Against a business that makes one critic after another responsible for falling wages and poor working conditions all over the country? Against a supermarket chain that knocks out one rival after another – particularly workers organized in unions? Whose headquarters close whole stores or business departments when a union has a foot in the door?

“We pursue a double strategy,” Blank explains. “We organize nationwide and international campaigns as for example the Anti-Wal-Mart demonstrations on Mother’s Day. We help organize local citizen initiatives.” The battle will be waged in the press – with the help of charges of alleged child labor, unpaid overtime or false advertising. An Internet site is planned where frustrated Wal-Mart employees can complain anonymously. Environmental groups receive tips and money from the unions just like women’s rights organizations, representatives for immigrants, third-world groups and defenders of old mom-and-pop or corner stores. “We form a broad coalition,” Blank proclaims. “This is not a question that only concerns the unions.”

He is certainly right when one recalls that even Jim Babbitt was with him. “The Babbitts came to Flagstaff in 1886,” he relates, “four years after the railroad.” Like most of his predecessors, Jim Babbitt is a merchant and shop-owner. He runs a specialty shop for mountain sports articles in the town center of Flagstaff. “Babbitt brothers – Ranchers, Merchants & Indian Traders” is written in hand-painted letters on the front of the building that matches the historical heart of the town. One can get dressed up in his cowboy boots, purchase Indian jewelry or enjoy a whisky in the saloon.

The Babbitt family has already experienced the effect of mammoth retail corporations several times. In the eighties it was the Safeway-chain that threw its weight around in Flagstaff and bumped off Babbitt’s relatively expensive food store. When mammoth supermarkets like Target turned up at the outskirts of town along with a smaller traditional Wal-Mart and a new shopping center, the shop-owners of the old downtown saw their profits shrivel again – if they hadn’t completely adjusted to business with tourists.

What will happen now if the new Wal-Mart supercenter comes? Supercenters are giant boxes that typically have a surface area as large as 18 American football fields. Everything is offered there from food to car tires, sports articles to cosmetics. “This damages us merchants,” Babbitt says, “and the community. My old building is also an historical monument – if I keep it in good shape. I spend the money that I earn right here in the community. With Wal-Mart, our money is miles away the next day.”

Babbitt knew where he stood when the whole trouble broke out last September. The city council, with its ecological planning ideas and the mayor who once managed a local Safeway supermarket, prohibited by directive enormous supermarket chains. In a counter move, the local real estate agent Frank Dickens and the chamber of commerce president Julie Pastrick promptly drafted a public opinion poll. The following months became a battle whose dimensions were unforeseen by both sides.

For some reason, Wal-Mart headquarters in Arizona decided to fight in Flagstaff instead of simply withdrawing their plans as in several other cases and opening a store in the vicinity to entice customers there. Wal-Mart sponsored the vote in Flagstaff and not in a meager way. At the end of April, the Pro-Wal-Mart campaign had at least 0,000 for advertising, television spots and actions. Two advertising agents were hired. Public relations personnel from Wal-Mart helped locally. A scandal occurred at the flashpoint of the campaign. Wal-Mart placed an advertisement that showed the 1933 book burning at the Berlin opera plaza. Whoever wants to prohibit Wal-Mart, like the Flagstaff city council, also prohibits freedom of thought. Wal-Mart and Flagstaff briefly crashed the headlines nationwide for bad taste. The supermarket giant apologized and its communication department dismissed the person responsible.

Even more surprisingly, the month-long campaign split the population of Flagstaff, but not along the usual fault lines. The head of the chamber of commerce, Julie Pastrick, quickly lost the support of many members when she leaped to the side of Wal-Mart. However, she “won more than a hundred members.” There were businesspersons who regarded the protest of the storeowners as obvious protectionism. Others even saw new hope with the new Wal-Mart supercenter. More visitors would come from the areas surrounding Flagstaff. More gas stations, restaurants and drive-through businesses could be built all around Wal-Mart.

Division did not only occur in the chamber of commerce. “On average, residents with low incomes voted for Wal-Mart,” said Randy Wilson, editor of the local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Sun. The unions mobilized disadvantaged persons with their warnings of lower wages. On the other hand, many wealthy citizens voted for the new supercenter even though they seldom shop at Wal-Mart. “This was more a vote out of principle or ideology for the free market economy,” Wilson conjectures.

Students of the local Northern Arizona University were clearly against Wal-Mart. Business administration professors occasionally present Wal-Mart as a horror example of urban disfigurement. At this university, a Masters degree is offered in “Visions of Sustainable Communities.” The many Flagstaffers who in the past decades left the metropolitan cities of Phoenix or Los Angeles to retire or spend their leisure time in nature were part of the opposition. They didn’t want to see their newly found Paradise decay to an urban sprawl through those supermarket chains, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants, so typical of America. These new citizens had already helped several citizen initiatives succeed that urged more bike paths, more fallow natural fields, and against flouride admixtures in the drinking water.

Wal-Mart has more fear of these groups and the anger of ecologically and socially oriented affluent citizens than of unions. The retail giant immediately shot back when the New York Review of Books in the spring of 2005 published a sweeping condemnation of Wal-Mart as America’s wage-depressor and exploiter. In a two-page advertisement, the head of the firm Lee Scott, wrote that its critics were wrong. “An overdue debate about these themes should be conducted over the next decade.” For months, the corporation broadcast image-promoting TV-spots all over America, changed newspaper advertisements and invited 100 journalists in March 2005 to its firm headquarters to debunk the “myths” about Wal-Mart.

Is Wal-Mart impoverishing America with its low wages and pressure on suppliers? No, Wal-Mart says, an average family saves 0 a year! Are Wal-Mart’s wages lower than in union-organized supermarkets? Yes, but at ten dollars they are still twice as high as the national minimum wage! Can a family barely survive on that? Perhaps but only seven percent of Wal-Mart employees get by with this income! Doesn’t Wal-Mart take money from the state by only offering an overpriced health and pension insurance to its employees after a long waiting period? Not at all, Wal-Mart is a great taxpayer!

The arguments fly to and fro, often with Wal-Mart on the defensive. Researchers publish studies about Wal-Mart’s “social costs.” Congressional representatives protest. A few weeks before, the state of Maryland nearly passed a law against tight-fisted company health insurances like Wal-Mart’s. Aren’t these ideal times for a union campaign? “Here in Flagstaff we had enormous participation with fifty of our people going door to door,” says John McCarthy from the UFCW union. “This was a real grassroots campaign.”

‘THEY HAVE AGGRESSIVE TACTICS THAT FRIGHTEN EVERYONE”

The grassroots activist McCarthy has his office in Phoenix, two hours away. Like other activists, he travels for battle. The money that the union contributed to the Anti-Wal-Mart campaign came from out of town: ,000. This was more than the ,000 collected for the citizen initiative. “The unions are nearly insignificant here,” a local businessman told me. There are union members in only three supermarkets of the Safeway chain and a Fry’s food store.

Amanda Dominquez is one of those in a union in Flagstaff. For eleven years, she has been a cashier at Safeway and distributed leaflets by ringing doorbells to half the city of Falstaff in the past weeks in the referendum campaign. “I didn’t want Flagstaff to become like so many other cities in America, a conglomerate of supermarkets along a highway,” Dominquez explained. Her boss gave his blessing to the union engagement. He is also against a new Wal-Mart in Flagstaff, Dominquez says, for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless it was a strange form of union work for Dominquez. “At the doors I didn’t usually identify myself as a unionist”, she said. “I told them I was for the directive of the city council (to prohibit giant supermarket chains). “On average that sounded better to the people in Flagstaff. That the UFCW was one of the sponsors was only written cryptically in small print in the leaflets of the campaign. However, that soon changed. The Wal-Mart side threatened a lawsuit if the word union was not written out.

Can’t something different happen in America? Must unions disown themselves to have a chance against Wal-Mart? “You can’t organize against Wal-Mart,” another local union member complained. “They have aggressive tactics that frighten everyone.” Even Paul Blank, the UFCW campaign leader in Washington, admitted: “Yes, we have changed,” he said, “from recruiting members and organizing Wal-Mart stores to a broad movement.” This certainly doesn’t guarantee any victory in the long run as Flagstaff shows.”

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