Unions, Environmentalists Unite Against Wal-Mart

Anti-sprawl groups and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union have teamed up to fight Wal-Mart’s plans to build 40 “Supercenters” in California over the next four years, saying such stores block union organizing, worsen air pollution, and destroy habitat loss on the urban fringe.
“Historically, we’ve had the jobs- versus-environment debate, but sprawl has brought traditionally disparate groups together,” says Stacy Mitchell of the anti-sprawl group New Rules Foundation. “It’s a growing connection.”
Supercenters, 24-hour discount-goods-and-grocery outlets surrounded by acres of parking lots, destroy local businesses by drawing shoppers away from local downtown areas and towards the outskirts of cities, say sprawl opponents. “Supercenters are worse than [any other big-box development], whether you’re a union or an anti-sprawl activist, partly because of sheer size,” Mitchell said.
Wal-Mart employs no unionized workers. Employees pay extra for a Wal-Mart benefits plan, which is available only to those working more than 32 hours a week. In addition to all the discount goods and clothes of a regular Wal-Mart, Supercenters add a complete grocery and produce market, and often a full pharmacy, nail and hair salon, bookstore, and gas station.
When a Supercenter opens, says Mitchell, “you have one or two grocery stores that close within one year. Within three to five years, you’ll have dozens of other stores that close. Grocery stores go under very quickly, whereas hardware and other stores last a little longer, but eventually they too will succumb.”
The UFCW, which represents one million grocery store clerks, considers Supercenters a major threat to unionized grocery stores like Albertson’s and Safeway. In September, the union successfully lobbied for the first anti-Supercenter ordinance in northern California, in the union stronghold of Martinez, where the city council voted to ban all stores over 90,000 square feet from selling more than 5% groceries.
Sprawl opponents have their own reasons to target Supercenters, which are often built from scratch, leaving behind the shells of outmoded Wal-Marts, says Al Norman of Sprawl Busters, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group. “At any point in time they’ve got thirty-two and a half million square feet [nationwide] of unproductive space that’s been paved over and taken out of use,” he says. “It’s no longer open space, no longer habitat, no longer a groundwater collector.”
And Supercenters only exacerbate the environmental hazards of smaller big-box developments, says the Sierra Club’s John Holtzclaw. “It’s traffic; it’s air pollution,” he told Terrain. “They buy the cheapest piece of land — often a wetland or a former wetland — they fill it in, flood their neighbors [with rain runoff from parking lots], and they pollute the water.”
About 20 communities across the country — from Ashland, Oregon to Northampton, Massachusetts to San Francisco’s Castro, North Beach, and Noe Valley neighborhoods — already have anti-big-box ordinances, which set square foot limits on retail. But the UFCW has targeted Superstores specifically.
In 1999, the UFCW lobbied for AB 84, a California bill which would have prohibited local governments from approving the construction of stores over 100,000 square feet from selling more than 15% food items — a law aimed directly at Superstores. After Governor Gray Davis vetoed the bill, the UFCW focused locally. Over the last two years, the union, in alliance with anti-sprawl groups, has fought for several anti-Supercenter ordinances in California towns, including Bakersfield, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Inglewood, and most recently, Martinez. Of the 40 Supercenters Wal-Mart says it plans to build, it will confirm only three locations: Bakersfield, La Quinta, and Chico.
The UFCW-backed ordinances may keep out Supercenters, but, say other opponents of sprawl, they can be limited in scope.
The Martinez ordinance, for instance, prevented an existing Wal-Mart from expanding into a Supercenter, but did nothing to prevent the construction or expansion of other big-box stores, like Home Depot or Costco, which don’t compete with union grocery stores.
“Any road that leads to smaller stores is good,” says Norman, “[but] my preference is for a simple cap on the size of the building. I don’t care if it’s a Costco or a Home Depot or a Lowe’s. To me, if it’s over 60,000 square feet, we don’t need it.”

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