New York City’s labor movement is about to take a victory lap for persuading Wal-Mart, the retail giant, to give up its attempts to open a store in Manhattan.
An unexpected, exasperated statement by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to The New York Times this week – “I don’t care if we are ever here. … I don’t think it’s worth the effort” – appears to write the final chapter on years of searching in vain for a foothold.
Scott later said that the company still would like to set up shop somewhere in the outer boroughs. But that will be a tall order.
For years now, in every place the company looked for a home, labor unions, lobbyists and politicians have thrown up roadblocks, sometimes by passing zoning rules to exclude Wal-Mart’s trademark megastores.
Now the unions and politicians that worked so hard to keep Wal-Mart out of Gotham have a moral obligation to help low-income New Yorkers find another way to get low-cost goods.
The opposition to Wal-Mart by organized labor has been understandable, even commendable. The company is notorious for using union-busting tactics: In 2000, after a majority of butchers in a Jacksonville, Tex., Wal-Mart voted to unionize, the company simply stopped carrying fresh meat and fired all the butchers.
That hardknuckled approach goes hand in hand with offering lousy pay and skimpy benefits to employees. Many full-time Wal-Mart workers live near the poverty line and rely on government benefits or a spouse’s health benefits to get by.
So many women have complained about Wal-Mart’s job-assignment and promotion practices that more than 2 million women – current and former employees – have banded together in the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history.
But opposing Wal-Mart’s odious practices is only half the equation. The anti-Wal-Mart forces also need to face the fact that working families in our city, including union households, routinely pay significantly more for food, clothing and other necessities than do suburbanites who have access to Wal-Mart and other big-box stores.
It’s a serious problem. For decades, inner-city neighborhoods across America have watched supermarkets and retail stores vanish, leaving an impoverished captive audience with few choices of what to eat or wear.
Study after study has confirmed what inner-city residents already know all too well: It’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to find fresh, cheap produce in the ghetto. Some bodegas and small supermarkets carry organic and low-sodium foods, but not nearly enough.
Every serious discussion of the inner-city epidemic of chronic diseases like hypertension, obesity, diabetes and heart disease eventually bumps into the urgent need to make better and cheaper goods available.
Beyond the question of food isthe simple, vital matter of helping poor people save money. Afamily that pays less for everything from diapers and baby food to coats, shoes and dresses can easily end up saving $400 to $500 ayear – a significant amount for a household with $20,000 to $30,000 in income.
The unions and politicians who keep chasing Wal-Mart away should keep holding strategy meetings – this time, to work on ways to bring supermarkets, food co-ops, green markets and discount retailers to the city residents who need them most.