The rap on Walmart has long been its downsides for poor people: low wages, unattainable benefits, disrespect from managers, forced overtime, intimidation of attempts to unionize. In D.C., the company made a concerted effort to win over folks who might have the greatest problem with that—and turned a few into its most effective advocates.
Late last year, Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center, was invited to the Walmart Foundation’s downtown offices, where executives asked her to submit a grant application for her organization. She got it: $125,000 for youth summer enrichment, a lifeline at a time when the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program had been slashed dramatically.
At a February meeting at the Columbia Heights accounting firm Ayala & Associates, Kaplan and a dozen representatives from other Latino groups met Walmart officials including Tony Waller, the company’s Puerto Rican senior director for corporate affairs and constituent relations. “I appreciate that they are willing to reach out to youth groups and the Latino community and sort of share their story, because since they never really were in Washington, my sense was stuff the press had said over the years,” Kaplan says. “From the Youth Center’s point of view, Walmart coming to Washington is a good thing. We would really like to develop a deeper partnership where we can be a source of employees, but also a place where employees won’t just stay in the in the lowest-level retail position, but get the training to move up.”
In early November last year, several D.C. leaders were invited out to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.—a couple hundred people all told, including delegates from the National Council of La Raza and other identity-based groups. It wasn’t a high-budget trip. They stayed at a Hampton Inn and were fed boxed sandwiches and a buffet of barbecue and hush puppies. But Frankie Blackburn, a longtime community organizer with IMPACT Silver Spring, was won over.
“I really did see a genuine commitment to changing the way they approach retail in a way that’s responsive to these communities that are changing,” she says. Blackburn was even excited by the possibility of having a new gathering point for the lower-income people she serves. “It’s almost like a mini community center,” she says. “Maybe they greet you and say ‘hey, would you like to know more about what’s going on in the Shepherd Park neighborhood? Or maybe they host elementary school singing groups every Friday night, in the lobby of the Walmart. When you link it to retail, people are more likely to come out and see their neighbors singing and pick up toilet paper at the same time.”
In the end, Walmart’s charm offensive even made a convert out of Manny Hidalgo, director of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, which has long recieved support from Walmart-owned Sam's Club. Hidalgo co-founded the District-wide business association Think Local First with Shallal, but the two no longer speak. The restaurateur’s anti-Walmart events and letters to the editor have made him perhaps the most prominent critic of the firm’s arrival, along with Yes! Organic Market owner Gary Cha, which irks Hidalgo.
“I find that self-righteous approach to it shameful. That, to me, is a clear indication that you don’t know the plight of hardworking poor people,” Hidalgo says. “Is Andy Shallal going to bring a couple thousand jobs to the District? No. He lives in a beautiful home in Adams Morgan. Please get off the soapbox, come back to reality, and realize that this is a complex issue, and we owe it to the people of Washington to look at this.”
Shallal rejects that interpretation.
“There’s this idea that we’re pitting people with means against people who don’t have means, that these upper-middle-class people are dictating what lower income people can buy,” Shallal says. “That’s really a bunch of baloney. It’s not about whether you’re poor or rich. Most people who can afford to shop at Walmart can afford to shop elsewhere. It’s really a choice.”
Hidalgo says an urban Walmart won’t have the same baleful local impact as the rural version. “To continue to think of Walmart as the Walmart of before is a lost opportunity,” he says. “You have to think about what Walmart can be…If all you do is oppose, oppose, oppose, what we call it in Spanish, you’re viviendo del cuento—living off the story.”
It’s easy to explain the support as a case of a firm buying loyalty with lavish spending. But Walmart’s approach is more subtle: It’s about character as much as cash. Rather than a cushy corporate junket, Hidalgo says the humble nature of his trip to Bentonville was what impressed him. “I realized, we’re not talking about a monster, like everybody says. We’re talking about America,” he says, remembering the CEO jumping into taste-off for salmon sauces made by different wholesalers. “It’s really a down-home corporation.”
Walmart has spent many years and millions of dollars trying to sweeten its image among future collaborators and customers. As it turned out, even those who stand to lose from Walmart’s presence didn’t put up much of a fight.
Take organized labor, which in other markets led the resistance. In the District, where private-sector unions have little muscle, organized labor accepted the premise that in a weak economy, nobody could stop Walmart from coming, no matter how hard they tried. When the United Food and Commercial Workers union commissioned a poll last summer, it didn’t ask, “are you in favor of Walmart?” It asked, “Would you support legislation to require big box stores to pay more than $12 an hour and hire from the surrounding community?” Some 76 percent of likely voters say yes, but the question itself was essentially an admission of defeat. Building trades unions joined the UFCW “Respect DC” coalition, which has proposed an 11-page city-wide community-benefits agreement. But they’re more concerned about getting union members jobs on those construction sites than getting living wages for those who’ll work within them.
Another weak link in the Walmart resistance: small businesses. Despite Shallal’s fiery activism, most of the sites are essentially commercial deserts. The only location with a real existing base of small businesses is the one on Georgia Avenue, but few have rallied to defend its junk shops and liquor stores. Especially when the firm has worked with nearby business groups to apply for federal grants—something the Beacon Brightwood Business Alliance needs a lot more than it needs living-wage regs. “They really just speak to regulating Walmart,” director Hasim Dawkins says, of Respect DC’s demands. “They really don’t talk about what we can do to revitalize a commercial district.”
Churches haven’t acted in concert either. A meeting with Waller didn’t win over the Wednesday Group, a fellowship of 30-odd social justice-oriented reverends and pastors. But other big blocs, like the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and the Washington Interfaith Network, didn’t even add their names to the list of organizations in support, saying they were preoccupied with other campaigns.
All that left a scattered opposition of ideologues—whose “Walmart-Free D.C.” campaign didn’t do its side any favors by showing up to grandstand and distribute hyperbolic literature at every meeting—and people concerned about things like traffic and drainage, which have nothing to do with who’s on the lease. That’s not a coalition that was going to tax all of Bentonville’s fabled political power.
Without any prospect of actually blocking Walmart, the only thing opponents have left is asking for concessions. And there, Walmart has done a great job of dangling the possibility of cooperation with various groups, while committing to none. At community meetings, Walmart liaison Keith Morris dances around questions about whether the chain will sign a document, saying that any package of benefits would need to be tailored to each neighborhood.
Two of the neighborhoods already have community benefits agreements requiring the developers to kick back some money, both resulting from zoning processes unique to those sites. But neither of those agreements asks anything of Walmart itself. For concessions like a higher starting wage and local hiring, the Gray administration has drafted its own community-benefits agreement, but kept it under wraps. Walmart, after all, doesn’t have to sign anything.
And at every turn, Walmart has made the case that it in itself is a community benefit. Top politicians certainly seem glad to help spread that message. Just as Respect DC was staging a rally, Gray—who was elected last year with overwhelming labor support—announced that Walmart had donated $665,000 for the city’s summer youth programming. It’s hard to demand more from someone while you’re busy thanking them for their generosity.
Even politicians on the council’s left wing see little to dislike about the massive company, despite its small-business-stifling, workers-rights-trampling reputation.
“The life has already been sucked out of downtown,” says Wells. “We’re trying to build it back. And America is used to shopping at discount retailers and we have a tremendous amount of leakage. So when we say ‘what are the community benefits before we allow you in here,’ it’s under that paradigm.” The Walmart in Wells’ ward contains 300 units of workforce housing and retail bays for small businesses fronting the street; he’s also working with the chain to fund a training program at the University of the District of Columbia.
Looked at one way, Walmart’s cakewalk is an illustration of D.C.’s southern nature: Trusting of big business, grateful for investment, deeply skeptical of unions. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., often a big labor backer, has been Walmart’s biggest cheerleader. And in Ward 4, Councilmember Muriel Bowser doesn’t think organized labor should get any special deference. “Dues-paying members are concerned that Walmart will drive down wages, and they won’t be able to negotiate for as much,” she says. “So that’s as self-interested an argument as any.” It may be true. But setting up consumers and workers as two different interests is classic anti-union boilerplate, and not the sort of argument Walmart’s cadres usually hear in northern cities.
Looked at in another way, however, it’s just more evidence of D.C.’s division along the lines of race and class. Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who helped found Walmart Watch, notes that the people most disposed to think about Walmart’s global labor practices are less inclined to get involved at the city level. “The sort of cognoscenti that would have been and is engaged in this Walmart opposition intellectually as liberal activists hasn’t translated here in the same way, because Walmart hasn’t said we’re going to put the stores in Spring Valley,” Sefl says, referring to the rich, leafy Ward 3 neighborhood. “Walmart would say, this was purely economics, and they’re siting their stores where it makes sense to be. It still means they bypass that often white opposition.”
Over coffee at a café off U Street NW—not Busboys and Poets, which a P.R. rep laughingly declined—Restivo offered a made-in-Bentonville take, born of triumphs in much tougher environments than the District’s. With dead-serious eyes, he predicted the future as if some higher being had clued him in.
“When each of these stores opens in the District, there will be tens of thousands of customers who come in and out every day,” he said. “Those are folks who probably never wrote a letter to the editor, never showed up at an ANC meeting, never went and voiced their opinion to their councilmember, yet they’re going to vote for every day with their pocketbook. And that’s a fact that our critics just can’t dispute. And so as a result, they try to leverage lots of noise and misinformation, and that’s taken to be opposition. But in reality, when those stores open, they will be extremely busy, and customers will be saving lots and lots of money.”