Renewed efforts to open a Walmart in New York City will likely be met with the same fierce opposition they always have, as several members of the City Council made clear yesterday during a hearing into a Walmart store’s possible effects on the city. Citing its history of hiring and promoting with prejudice, paying low wages, discouraging unionization and failing to support local economies, Council Speaker Christine Quinn issued a transparent message to the company: “you cannot come to New York City and behave the way you have behaved in other parts of the country.”
Before the meeting began, several dozen to a few hundred protesters—mostly members of unions and the professional-activist class—clogged the north side of Chambers Street, from Elk Street to the old Emigrant Savings Bank, forcing pedestrians into the street. Passersby appeared confused, apathetic or bored. “Not exactly the streets of Cairo,” one downtown-douchebag type cracked as demonstrators throatily chanted slogans like “Walmart-Free, N-Y-C!” The harshest anti-Walmart rhetoric, however, came from indoors, where African-American Councilmember Charles Barron (East New York) called the company a “roving plantation.” “There are no slaves in East New York,” he said. “We will not be your slave workers.”
Walmart did not send a representative to the meeting, though the council eagerly invited them. “New York City is home to many of our best competitors…the joint hearing, however, does not appear to consider the impact of the hundreds of NYC stores operated by these companies; rather it focuses solely on Walmart,” the company’s senior manager for community affairs, Philip H. Serghini, wrote in a statement. “For these reasons and more, we respectfully decline participation in the February 3rd hearing.” But many present didn’t buy this line of reasoning. “Walmart is not your ordinary big box retailer,” said co-chair Karen Koslowitz (Forest Hills). “It is in a category by itself.” Speaker Quinn noted that Walmart’s revenues last year were equal almost to those of Exxon-Mobil and Chevron combined, far outpacing those of its retail rivals like Target.
Walmart did, however, seem to send phantom representatives to be their eyes, ears, hands and mouths—someone collected business cards promising to send more information in the afternoon, and someone else handed out the community affairs division’s info packet; a representative of a group called “Walmart 2 NYC,” Tony Herbert, a Prospect Heights-native and Bed Stuy-resident, was on hand to offer anti-union, pro-choice talking points to reporters. “This is America,” he said. “It should be our choice where we work and shop.” (Councilman Barron furiously accused such groups, represented by people of color, of being paid off and betraying their people.) Herbert said that if the company promised, as it has, to involve the community in planning decisions and to create jobs, he had no problems.
But history would show that opening a Walmart would not likely create a net gain in jobs. For example, after one opened recently in Chicago, small business closures increased; stores closer to Walmart were statistically significantly more likely to shutter, according to a study by Professor David Merriman of the University of Illinois, who testified by video link—results that he said were consistent with other studies at a national level. He said that, in Chicago, jobs were a “net wash”—for every one the company created, another was lost. A different study, cited later, found that for every two jobs that a Walmart creates, three are lost.
Walmart’s info packet included several op-eds that refuted these findings with logical fallacy and truthiness, including anecdotes and the writers’ general feelings. “Walmart has been a boon to my constituents on the far West Side of Chicago,” Alderman Emma Mitts, who admits she’s “not an economist,” writes in the New York Daily News. “The change is obvious. No academic research…will convince me otherwise.” In the Austin Weekly News, Arlene Jones rebuts a Loyola study that indicated Walmart was responsible for business closures in that city. “I can’t do a fancy study like the one the report conducted…After looking at all the facts, figures, dots and dashes, I concluded that I am neither a mathematician nor a statistician. But I am a ‘common-sense-tician,'” she writes (emphasis mine), after which she provides several examples of stores opening in Austin.
A larger problem are the indirect effects of Walmart’s failure to integrate itself within the local economy. Local retailers depend on each other: they do their printing at the local print shop, for example; local supermarkets buy their bread from the local bakeries. But Walmart—or, as one small-business representative from Brownsville called it, “Walmonster”—has its own national distribution chains that cut these businesses out. With local businesses, fifty-four cents of every dollar spent goes back into the community, according to a study cited at the hearing. For every dollar spent at a Walmart, only fourteen cents does.
A representative of independent supermarkets explained to the committee what effect this would have in Brooklyn. “Walmart,” he said, “is going to make a desert out of Pennsylvania Avenue.” And that would only be the beginning.