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Sam and His Pals 

L.A. is a Wal-Mart town. Get used to it.

Thursday, Oct 9 2003
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Photo by Jack Gould

I’ve been standing next to my shopping cart for at least 20 minutes, and now the woman behind me wants me to keep an eye on her stuff while she takes her little girl to the restroom. No problem. This line isn’t going anywhere. Half of the 16 checkout stands are closed, so another 10 minutes probably stands between me and the packed Panorama City parking lot outside.

I don’t even want the jeans I threw in my cart, and I’ll probably end up giving them away. What are they? Rustler? “Made in Honduras of imported fabric.” $9.99. I’m in line at what used to be the Broadway not to buy stuff but to survey the front lines of a battle for the city’s future. This store in a once-decaying part of the San Fernando Valley is the first beachhead in the final urban assault of the world’s largest corporation. This is Wal-Mart.

Environmental and social concerns abound over Target, Kmart, Home Depot and other so-called big-box stores of 100,000 square feet or more, but elected officials generally have kept quiet about them. After all, the giant retailers provide sales tax revenues and bring back desperately needed commerce and foot traffic to economically devastated districts like Panorama City and Crenshaw. But the silence over big-box stores, especially Wal-Mart, is ending as the forces of progressive social policy gain more following in City Hall — and as Wal-Mart expands into the grocery business. No longer just the Earth’s largest seller of laundry detergent, furniture, clothes, DVDs and pretty much everything else, Wal-Mart now is the world’s biggest supermarket, selling low-priced groceries while paying low wages and extending paltry benefits to its more than one million nonunion workers.

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Unionized employees at major grocery chains in Southern California start at the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour for beginning baggers. Cashiers can earn up to $17.90. Wal-Mart does not publicly discuss wages. Court records in a discrimination lawsuit put average Wal-Mart pay for hourly workers at $8.23 in 2001.

Pressure from Wal-Mart’s lower costs and grocery prices moved Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons to demand Southern California contract concessions from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which responded this week with a strike vote. As grocery workers prepare to picket, their union, Councilman Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) are readying an ordinance that would bar Wal-Mart from ever selling groceries in Los Angeles — unless the virulently anti-union corporation takes the unlikely step of agreeing to pay its grocery workers a prevailing wage.

Here in the Panorama City Wal-Mart, the refrigerator and freezer cases are being replaced, so for now they’re selling cereal but no milk. No bacon, cold cuts, packed meats, ice cream, frozen dinners, or any of the stuff you can get at the city’s newest Wal-Mart, which took the space of the old Broadway at the Baldwin Hills–Crenshaw Mall. You can feed a family of four on what you get from the Baldwin-Crenshaw store, though the corporate giant from Bentonville, Arkansas, has yet to open any full-service grocery centers in California.

But the company has announced plans for 40 in-state Supercenters — a sort of Wal-Mart on steroids that includes a huge supermarket. The first is to open in La Quinta, the next in Palm Springs. And Wal-Mart is keeping its options open for the rest of the state, meeting UFCW-sponsored restrictions with that most California of responses, the ballot referendum. Voters in Contra Costa County, for example, will soon decide whether to overturn a law approved by their Board of Supervisors that bars retail establishments of a particular size from devoting a certain percentage of their floor area to the sale of nontaxable goods — legal jargon that, in effect, prevents big-box stores like Wal-Mart from selling groceries and undercutting unionized supermarkets.

But the big battle, the one that Los Angeles lawyers, developers and elected officials will be watching, is in Inglewood. There, a year ago, the City Council passed its own version of the big-box grocery ban, only to rescind it under legal pressure from Wal-Mart. Now, the corporation is gathering signatures for a March ballot measure that would effectively bar Inglewood from ever again trying to legislate over big-box development. If taking its case directly to the people proves successful in Inglewood, Wal-Mart could completely reinvent the way developers deal with local governments. Los Angeles is on notice.

“Wal-Mart,” company spokesman Peter Kanelos says, “will oppose any ordinance that singles out our ability to provide a better and more convenient shopping experience.”

Labor leaders and their political allies like Garcetti aren’t flinching. “We’ve always been able to stand up for what we believe in in L.A. and I don’t see any reason to retreat from those principles or not to act on them simply because we’re facing the largest company in America,” Garcetti says.

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