A Tale of Two City Councils
Last Thursday, the New York City Council held a hearing on Walmart's attempt to enter the market (it had to be rescheduled from December because a bigger room was needed). Walmart itself declined to show up, leaving a parade of anti-Walmart speeches to go largely unanswered. Council Chair Christine Quinn, an outspoken critic of the retailer, said that Walmart's “refusal to attend, sadly, only leads me to be further skeptical about them as a company.” At a raucous rally outside, public advocate Bill DeBlasio joined the chorus of disapproval, while a councilmember whose Brooklyn district is being considered for a Walmart location called it a "plantation."
The scene was very, very different at a rally in front of Washington D.C.'s Wilson Building this afternoon. No public officials showed up to support a rally demanding a binding community benefits agreement that would include things like a living wage and assistance for local businesses. Councilmember Michael Brown's Housing and Workforce Development Committee has no plans to hold hearings, and Economic Development committee chairman Harry Thomas is probably the most pro-Walmart person on the Council.
After a morning of meetings with officials and staff, which yielded no evidence of a coordinated strategy on the part of politicians to compel Walmart to do anything, the advocates' disappointment was palpable.
"Our councilmembers are acting like they don't know what Walmart is," said Brenda Speaks, an ANC commissioner representing the area near Walmart's proposed Georgia Avenue location. "We did not get any satisfying answers from one councilmember."
The problem was quite easy to understand in Safeway and Giant employees' audience with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who started the meeting by asking why grocery unions wanted Walmart to pay more than Safeway and Giant do already. (Answer: Unions think they have a chance to make Walmart set a higher standard for other grocers. As it stands, Walmart has already depressed wages at Safeways and Giants ringing the District. Of course, workers living in Maryland and Virginia don't count for much when canvassing the Wilson Building.)
Barry quickly came out with his position: Ward 8 needs all the consumer goods it can get, and he wants a Walmart too. While voicing support for the union's living wage goals, it was pretty clear that he'd put up with a lot to persuade Walmart to come. "My job is to get 'em here," he said, naming a few sites that are under consideration.
Another problem: Building a broad base of support, and keeping it on message. The Living Wages, Healthy Communities coalition is largely funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and organized be the small staff of D.C. Jobs with Justice. It includes environmental groups, the Federation of Civic Associations, and four local churches, but hasn't brought on the faith community in a big way. "Most churches are slow to embrace the social justice aspect of Jesus' ministry," said Reverend Howard Finley of Florida Avenue Baptist Church, explaining the lackluster response from houses of worship.
Officially, the coalition isn't "anti" Walmart, saying that they just want the company to be a good corporate citizen when it does arrive. But there are definitely still those who want to keep Walmart out altogether–even at the rally, "We don't want Walmart!" cries mixed with the compromising appeals for respectable wages and benefits, which makes it difficult for politicians to stand in solidarity.
Why the difference between D.C. and New York? Partly, it has to do with the historic strength of the union movement in the big apple, which never developed to the same extent in D.C. Also, lots of parts of the District are actually much more suburban feeling than even the furthest regions of Brooklyn. Finally, New York communities are comparatively well-served by a wider variety of lower-end grocery chains, like C-Town and Key Food, which also feel more threatened by Walmart's encroach.
That leaves Yes! Organic Markets owner Gary Cha, feeling much more lonely. Again, he came with a battery of statistics about jobs destroyed and small business sales stolen (see video below). But so far, it's not clear that anyone with even rhetorical power is listening.