Local Spin: Occupy Wal… mart
What jobs are SB 469 opponents trying to save?
Thursday, October 6, 2011
My older teenager (the one with the bigger mouth and more world-weary attitude)
wondered the other day when Occupy Wall Street might make a foray into Monterey County. The movement was going to our former hometown of Berkeley, he told me, but when you think about it, occupying Berkeley is kind of redundant.
It led to the discussion, though: What institutions in Monterey County would it make sense for the disenfranchised to occupy? The National Steinbeck Center? The late Nobel laureate made his life’s work about the disenfranchised; he might find the idea of occupying his namesake center satisfying. The Monterey Bay Aquarium? The Packards are taking all of that HP cash and trying to save the oceans. Why bug them over it?
But then the kind folks at Mercury LLC, a “high-stakes public strategy firm” that knows “what it takes to win in difficult situations” (according to its website) and whose partner in Sacramento is former Schwarzenegger Deputy Chief of Staff Adam Mendelsohn (who still works with the Governator on his “entertainment endeavors”) gave me an idea. And then they gave it to me again, four more times, in a series of emails over two days.
Why not occupy Walmart?
In Monterey County, a threat (whether fantasy or real) to Walmart and other big-box retailers was enough this week to bring out the leaders of various Chambers of Commerce, ag leadership, the League of California Cities and economic development to defend it. Walmart may be the closest thing Monterey County has to a financial institution, and I have the queasy feeling that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The aforementioned leadership – Salinas Valley Chamber chief Tom Carvey, P.G. Mayor (and League of California Cities vice president) Carmelita Garcia, Salinas Economic Development Chief Jeff Weir, Farm Bureau Chief Norm Groot – gathered at Salinas City Hall Tuesday morning to formally ask Gov. Jerry Brown to veto SB 469. Authored by John Vargas (D-San Diego), the Small and Neighborhood Business Protection Act would require cities or counties to prepare a report, including economic impacts, before allowing big-box retailers to build. (That’s narrowly defined as stores of 90,000-plus square feet with 10 percent of floor space devoted to non-taxable food items.)
Depending on who you talked to at the press conference, opposing the bill is about local control, unemployment, saving jobs, union manipulation, land use, unfair business practices (!) and preventing companies from going to Texas, which apparently is willing to bend over backwards to get another Walmart or Target to open shop. Daniel Carrigg, legislative director for the League of California Cities, writes that the bill has a discriminatory effect by not subjecting other large retail establishments and “any other business with a large parking lot” to the same rigorous review.
The measure “attempts to mask a labor dispute behind a thin policy wall,” he says.
I wasn’t aware Walmart, which employs about 600 people locally and pays an average of $12 an hour in the state, needed protection against unfair business practices. (Consider the irony there.) But I am aware that Walmart and other mega retailers like Safeway now account for one-third of all the purchases of Salinas Valley produce. According to Norm Groot, Walmart itself accounts for 6,000 Salinas Valley ag jobs. While that number seems high, it shows how Walmart can wield enough influence to block a bill aimed at trying to protect small businesses that mostly die in Walmart’s wake.
Garcia is more likely to throw herself in front of a bulldozer than let a superstore eyeball Pacific Grove. Carvey, Weir and Valenta say the bill might hamstring all economic development and job creation (and, Carvey says, the bill makes California look like “crazy left-wingers”). And Weir says shopping choices should be left up to individuals: “We cannot manipulate what the market will not accept.”
It’s ironic to me that when Salinas’ Star Market found itself buried in layer upon layer of bureaucracy when it wanted to put in a cheese counter – and ended up having to rebuild all of its curbs and more – there was no great uprising. But demand that big-box retailers explain exactly what their presence will do to the community, and leadership goes bananas. They want to save jobs, they say, and maintain local control.
Local control is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s ceded when a few stores are allowed to control the shots, pay less than a living wage for this area and demand ever-lower prices from vendors.
Maybe those are principles worth an occupation.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.