Taking aim at "economic fascists," California lawmakers just say no to Costco and other retail monoliths.
Thursday, September 23, 1999
CEOs of the four humongous corporations--who earned a combined $20.6 million in salaries and bonuses last year--want their customers to call, write, e-mail, and fax Gov. Gray Davis and tell him he should veto a piece of legislation they say doesn''t treat them fairly.
"This bill was ramrodded through the Legislature," complained a Wal-Mart spokesperson. "We hate this bill," protested a Kmart public-relations staffer. "COSTCO NEEDS YOUR HELP! TELL THE GOVERNOR AB84 IS A BAD LAW!" pleaded a full-page, black-and-red newspaper ad you probably saw last week.
If Davis signs it, AB84 would certainly be a bad law for Costco and other big-box retailers. Shepherded through the Legislature two weeks ago by several labor unions and supermarket chains, the bill would see to it that not one more gigantic merchandise/grocery/drug store is built anywhere in the state. That''s right. If Davis puts pen to paper, and if you don''t have a Costco, Super Kmart, SuperTarget, or Wal-Mart Supercenter near your home by now, you may never have one. The big-boxes in Salinas, Sand City, and Hollister to which many Monterey Countians have grown accustomed are safe, but that might be all you''ll get...period.
On Sept. 10, Democratically controlled Sacramento did something that mom-and-pop business owners, union organizers, and progressive activists throughout the country have only fantasized about. While a godsend for working-class families seeking bargain-priced toilet paper and macaroni-and-cheese, big-box retailers are public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of people and organizations concerned about the dismantling of local economies--in their opinion--at the hands of "category-killing" retail chains like Costco and Wal-Mart.
Now, add to the list of big-box foes Democrats in the state Legislature--particularly an Assemblymember from the Los Angeles suburb of Wilmington named Dick Floyd. "Economic fascists have already wiped out all our downtown businesses," Floyd, a ten-term lawmaker, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They''ve destroyed independent clothing stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, music stores. These bastards are taking over the whole country."
Beyond its history-in-the-making legislative intent, the theatrics surrounding Floyd''s bill have made for great storytelling around Sacramento watering holes.
While unsuspecting big-box executives were planning their next grand opening, Floyd scooped up an unrelated bill wallowing on the Senate floor (co-authored, ironically, by free-marketeer Assemblymember Peter Frusetta of Tres Pinos) and, just two days before the Legislature''s scheduled adjournment, tacked on his anti-big-box language. With Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Senate President Pro-tem John Burton personally adopting the bill, big-box executives and their lobbyists never stood a chance. The measure steamed through the Senate and Assembly, where Democrats hold 5-to-3 and 3-to-2 advantages, respectively.
"This was done in a cloak of darkness," objected Kmart public policy chief Dale Apley. He''s got a point: After going through a highly abbreviated, almost nonexistent debate with almost no public notice, the bill underwent its final vote shortly after midnight two weeks ago Friday. Big-box companies allege cronyism, too; grocery store magnate Ron Burkle of Ralphs is an old Davis friend and major Democratic Party contributor.
Also caught with their pants down were major newspapers, whose editorial boards have since been almost unanimous in their criticism of the legislative sleight-of-hand. ("Shabby lawmaking," barked the San Jose Mercury News.)
That''s politics, say the bill''s backers, most notably the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried virtually without success to organize workers at California''s more than 500 big-boxes. The union has suffered frustration after frustration, like when Kmart simply ignored a pro-union vote at one of its stores in Oakland--even after the federal government officially certified the election.
The UFCW''s motive is a simple one: The jobs of the union''s 187,000 members employed at California grocery- and drug-store chains are being jeopardized by big-box retailers which, except for Costco, maintain nearly union-free workplaces. (Fewer than half of California''s 88 Costcos are unionized, and those by the Teamsters.) The more market share that Safeway and Ralphs lose to Costco and Wal-Mart (now the country''s second-largest grocer), the fewer union jobs become, the lower wages become, and the thinner health and other benefits become, according to the UFCW. "Big-boxes," says Greg Denier of the UFCW''s Washington, D.C. office, "destroy existing business, eliminate living-wage jobs, and reduce living standards."
A just-completed study by the Orange County Business Council--no bastion of left-wing thought, by any means--gives credence to the UFCW''s concerns. The proliferation of Wal-Marts alone in Southern California is expected to deplete wages by a collective $500 million to $1.4 billion a year, the group predicted. Even beyond receiving higher wages, unionized grocery store workers enjoy better health benefits, more paid time off, and better pension plans than most big-box retailers offer.
Labor OrganizesFor years now, the UFCW and other unions have waged a political and public-relations war against the big-boxes, with Wal-Mart being their favorite target. Every year, for instance, the UFCW urges consumers to boycott Wal-Mart on Mother''s Day, in response to what the union calls the company''s "War on Women Workers." As part of the protest, the union cites an Institute for Women''s Policy Research study indicating the company''s treatment of women ranks among the bottom of U.S. retailers.
And, last summer, the UFCW published a study which sought to expose hypocrisies in Wal-Mart''s "Buy American" program. In "Using Patriotism to Deceive the American People," the union reported, among other things, that 80 percent of 895 Wal-Mart clothing items surveyed were made overseas, and that just 5 percent of the company''s "Faded Glory" products were made in the U.S.
Unions in Canada are getting into the act, too. The retail-wholesale division of the United Steelworkers has been getting a lot of PR mileage out of recent anti-Wal-Mart rulings. Two years ago, an Ontario court summarily certified the union at a Windsor store because of the company''s unfair labor practices, making it the world''s first unionized Wal-Mart.
"Nationally and internationally, Wal-Mart has run afoul with labor laws," said the UFCW''s Denier, such as interfering with workers'' organizing activities.
There''s far more behind the anti-big-box bill than concerns over the retailers'' effects on the workforce. Among Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa''s main worries, for instance, is how big-boxes tend to exploit tax benefits and other incentives many cities and counties offer them to move into their communities. Governments hungry for the big-boxes'' sales tax revenues have been burned when the chains began increasing the amount of non-taxable items stocked on their shelves--mainly food and pharmaceuticals. Mega-sized stores, such as Costcos and Wal-Mart Supercenters, house the equivalent of complete grocery and drug stores, which generate no sales taxes for local government. "These guys are getting tax breaks on both ends of the stick," said Villaraigosa''s spokesperson, Elena Stern.
Whether or not Davis signs AB84, a major blow has been struck against what essentially has been the unimpeded advance of big-boxes throughout the U.S. and, of late, the world. (In June, Wal-Mart bought the third-largest grocery store chain in England.) Even with a Davis veto, the anti-big-box bill will likely serve to motivate various local-level attempts to regulate retailing giants--as in Las Vegas, where a Clark County commissioner is trying to block Wal-Mart from erecting three, 200,000-square-foot Supercenters in that community. The bill may also provide after-the-fact, emotional support to successful grassroots campaigns, like last month''s resounding defeat of a Wal-Mart referendum in the Humboldt County town of Eureka.
"We need to rethink," posed Assemblymember Brett Granlund, the sole Republican who jumped the party line and voted for AB84. "Are we doing the right thing for the people of our state--subsidizing large businesses that put living-wage jobs and neighborhood markets in harm''s way?"