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UFCW has been in the forefront of the Stop Wal-Mart movement for more than a decade, attempting to organize workers, or “associates,” as they are called, at Wal-Marts across the country. There was a brief moment of success, when meat-cutters at a Texas Supercenter voted to organize. But the moment was short-lived. Wal-Mart almost immediately decided customers preferred only prepackaged meats, and reassigned the meat-cutting associates.
The union pushed through a California law in 1999 that would have forbid grocery sales at big-box stores statewide, but Gray Davis vetoed it. The next year, Jackie Goldberg, still on the Los Angeles City Council, introduced a city version of the restriction. Similar to municipal measures being tried around the state, Goldberg’s proposal did not mention Wal-Mart by name but instead barred any retail seller of more than 150,000 square feet that devotes more than 10 percent of its space to the sale of nontaxable items — in other words, prescription drugs and groceries.
The longtime chairman of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee was Hal Bernson, the council’s most conservative member and the leading backer of his district’s massive Porter Ranch development — where, at that moment, Wal-Mart was constructing its second Los Angeles store. Bernson didn’t like the proposal, nor did the city’s Planning Commission, and when Goldberg left to take a seat on the state Assembly, the ordinance was pared down into a set of parking and design guidelines for big-box developments.
The new Land Use committee chair, Ed Reyes, used to be a planning deputy for Councilman Mike Hernandez — Goldberg’s co-sponsor on the original L.A. proposal. The council also has picked up a handful of younger members who got where they are with the support of organized labor.
“You have a different kind of leadership now,” says Hernandez, who now works as a council staffer, “and the city is looking at a whole different set of issues.”
With Reyes enthusiastically supporting a big-box restriction, Eric Garcetti reintroduced the proposal. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office hasn’t finalized the language, and Wal-Mart and city officials are officially awaiting studies from the Community Development Department and two contractors: Rodino and Associates, hired by the city, and the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), hired by Wal-Mart.
But everyone knows there will be a traditional attempt to ban grocery sales in big-box stores, with two new twists. The law will apply only to four types of city economic development zones, plus a one-mile buffer, and it will permit big-box grocers if they agree to pay a prevailing wage — meaning something close to what union grocery workers get. City lawyers contend that both innovations make the law more likely to hold up in court, since there is no outright ban. As it turns out, though, the four zones plus the one-mile buffer cover pretty much the entire city, except for a few areas on the Westside and in the West Valley where large developable lots are scarce and the cost of land for a new Wal-Mart is prohibitive. And Wal-Mart has never agreed to any kind of wage mandate anywhere, other than federal and state minimum-wage laws.
Attorney Madeline Janis-Aparicio, who led the successful LAANE campaign to require all city contractors to pay their workers a “living wage,” has embraced the movement to restrict Wal-Mart grocery sales as part of her organization’s fight for “Growth With Justice.” Janis-Aparicio notes that the current campaign is not about sprawl or protecting mom-and-pop stores — although there may be merit to such battles at another time or perhaps in another place.
Garcetti agrees. “I would even want the Super Wal-Marts here,” Garcetti says. “But we want a Superstore to come to L.A. on our terms, not on theirs. Why would we spend all this money investing in redevelopment areas and empowerment zones with community development dollars to try to revitalize a certain area, and then invite folks in on their own terms in ways that affect the public money that we’re spending here?”
At a July hearing, Garcetti told a raucous auditorium filled with chanting UFCW members on one side and blue-vested Wal-Mart workers on the other that the ordinance was part of his “bond and commitment” to his father’s parents, who both were UFCW workers.
“This is an attempt to stand up here and draw the line in Los Angeles,” Garcetti announced.
Greg Freeman was at the same hearing and is conducting the L.A. County Economic Development Corporation study for Wal-Mart. Freeman insisted that his study would be even-handed and that he had reached no conclusions. But he proceeded to warn against the “traditional anti-Wal-Mart spin.”
“Nobody is talking about the fact that a Supercenter is lowering the cost of food for a lot of people,” Freeman said. He also noted that Wal-Mart has tremendous buying power in a city that still manufactures apparel and other goods. “We should look at whether it makes sense to be alienating one of the city’s best customers,” he said.
Freeman also noted that if Wal-Mart Supercenters are kept out of Los Angeles they will just draw away customers and sales tax revenues by locating in nearby communities — like Inglewood.