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Walmart in New York City

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“No one, no matter how prominent or previously well respected, should be permitted to publicly support Walmart without being called to account.”

Living in New York City has become more and more difficult for working people. The rent regulations which made this city livable have been eviscerated. There isn’t one community within the five boroughs that has been untouched by the gentrification which is destined to make New York a city for the haves only. The police stop and frisk black people at will, and Democratic Party politics are so dysfunctional that a Republican billionaire has been elected mayor three times.

Now there is a new menace on the horizon. Walmart has recommitted itself to opening its first store in New York City. New York once seemed to be safe from this big box retail menace. Pressure from community activists and unions had thwarted past attempts at securing a Walmart foothold so successfully that the corporation publicly admitted defeat. In 2007, H. Lee Scott, Walmart CEO, stated that he had given up on the prospect of opening a New York City store. “I don’t care if we are ever here. I don’t think it’s worth the effort.”

Scott did amend his comments slightly even at that time. A spokesperson said that he only meant Manhattan, and not the entire city. Anyone who pays attention to the issues of Walmart and relentless corporate pressure on the public should have known that the retreat was only temporary. Walmart can’t survive unless it keeps gobbling up communities into its maw, and the political climate of acquiescence to corporate demands makes New York and other cities ripe for the picking.

“Walmart has a bottomless pit of money to spread around.”

Walmart has now returned to New York with a vengeance. Using a slick new website and social media tools, it is back and determined to establish itself in a city which had previously resisted its presence.

The great recession has also created great desperation. Walmart has worked diligently to create a theme of improving employment opportunities in black neighborhoods, and giving residents a wide variety of products to purchase. It continues to publicly make black, low income people its spokespersons, and has already orchestrated a pro-Walmart protest held at New York’s City Hall. Once-resolute communities may think twice before sending Walmart and other big box stores packing. Most importantly, Walmart has a bottomless pit of money to spread around.

That money will be used to buy off politicians and community leaders and clergy. Other large cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles succumbed to the Walmart juggernaut for this very reason. Walmart didn’t become the largest retailer on earth by taking “no” for an answer. They have already calibrated their previous New York City campaigns and may be open to building a store with a footprint small enough to prevent the oversight of city regulations.

Currently only a small number of local politicians have expressed support for a Walmart presence. If retail worker unions and small business people do not speak up forcefully, that number will grow, and a New York City-based Walmart will become a done deal.

“There is no shortage of places where residents can buy products cheaply.”

Rapid gentrification has not entirely done away with the local discount stores that New York is known for having in most communities. There is no shortage of places where residents can buy products cheaply. Walmart is infamous for its low paid, largely temporary work force of “associates” which makes a lie of its claims of supplying well paying jobs. Walmart has the same employee turnover as fast food restaurants, and that point should not be forgotten when bought off politicians and preachers begin dancing to this corporation’s tune.

Walmart is now the subject of one of the largest class action lawsuits in the nation’s history. Two million women who are current or former Walmart employees will have their day at the United States Supreme Court in the Dukes v. Walmart case. Walmart discriminated against female employees in hiring and promotions and retaliated against those who complained about these practices.

“Walmart has the same employee turnover as fast food restaurants.”

Any politician or preacher or community leader who speaks out in favor a New York City Walmart must also speak to these facts. No one, no matter how prominent or previously well respected, should be permitted to publicly support Walmart without being called to account and being forced to answer hard questions about Walmart’s history of union busting and discrimination.

New Yorkers should not submit to the belief that the race to the bottom is inevitable. At a time when politicians compete to destroy citizen rights and cater to the powerful, the anti Walmart community must strengthen itself. This is not the moment to retreat. It is the time to stand firm and to establish that there is at least one place in this country which won’t give into the siren song of low wages and destroyed communities.

Margaret Kimberley

Margaret Kimberley

Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR (http://www.blackagendareport.com), and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.com.

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