The corporate suits from Wal-Mart stood before the San Diego Planning Commission last Thursday, threatening a costly legal war and promising to bring sales-tax windfalls to neighboring cities if San Diego insisted on standing in the way of the Wal-Mart juggernaut.
Don't give in, brave hearts of San Diego-resistance is not futile. Wal-Mart must be stopped in the name of justice, decency and American prosperity.
Like other cities, San Diego is wrestling with how to deal with the oncoming runaway train known as the Wal-Mart Supercenter-roughly 200,000 square feet of nastiness that crushes other retailers big and small, mars the neighborhood landscape and pays poverty wages, all the while wooing converts with a Kool-Aid of low, low prices on just about every product under the sun.
The so-called "Large Retail Ordinance" has been in the works for years, but it's only recently picked up steam. City planners have been kicking around ideas for regulating "big-box" retail giants with interested parties for about a year, and the result of their efforts landed in the laps of the Planning Commission last week, on its way to the City Council for an ultimate showdown with Wal-Mart. Commissioners didn't like some of the specifics, so they sent the proposed ordinance back to staff for revisions.
Regardless of what the Planning Commission does, the final decision will be the City Council's, with guidance from new City Attorney Mike Aguirre; Wal-Mart will sue, just as it's doing right now in other cities. The City Council must not cower before the threats of Wal-Mart and its intimidating stable of lawyers.
Why? Because there's too much at stake. For starters, the giganto-stores are inconsistent with smart urban-village planning concepts our city leaders say they favor. To combat that, city planners have recommended design regulations and a couple of square-footage benchmarks that would trigger different levels of regulatory review.
More importantly, Wal-Mart's predatory pricing scheme makes it impossible for other stores-even other big retailers like Sears and K-Mart, which have merged-to compete. It's the latest chapter in an unpleasant evolutionary story that began with department stores gradually killing off independent shops and continued with suburban malls sucking the lifeblood from downtown commercial centers. Wal-Mart pays paltry worker wages, saving on labor costs threatening unionized supermarkets (which, to be fair, killed corner grocery stores). Wal-Mart pays less than a living wage, about $9 an hour to cashiers, on average, compared with the $15 an hour unionized grocery cashiers make. Meanwhile, most of the money Wal-Mart shoppers spend leaves the local economy-which, of course, is true for all chain retailers-finding its way into the pockets of shareholders elsewhere and making it impossible for local money to do the beneficial work it would be doing if were allowed to recycle over and over again here in town.
Adverse impact on the local economy is reason enough for city officials to take a hard line with Wal-Mart, but the problem is much more dire on a global scale. Wal-Mart is single-handedly turning the United States into a third-world country, as was argued recently in an enlightening Frontline documentary.
Through information-technology advances, which have allowed the company to restock products just as soon as they're sold from the shelves, Wal-Mart has revolutionized the product-supply system. It's managed to wrest control from the venders. By moving such a high volume of merchandise, increasing its leverage over the companies that make the products, it has accumulated ultimate power over what's manufactured and sold. Because these venders have become so dependent on Wal-Mart as a client, they've also become subservient when it comes to pricing. Because Wal-Mart's marketing depends on absurdly low prices-its so-called "opening price points" are the reason gazillions of people shop there every day-the company continues to force product prices down, to the point where many manufacturers can no longer afford to make their products in the United States. Consequently, venders have to move plants overseas, taking decent jobs with them.
This is a big reason why the United States is exporting more and more raw materials and importing more and more finished products-just like a third-world country. And it's a vicious downward cycle: the more people who lose good jobs because of the Wal-Mart economy and settle for lower-paying work, the more customers Wal-Mart has because it's the only place they can afford to shop. It's magnificent in its pure evil genius.
But it has to be stopped wherever possible. Wal-Mart is one huge, hideous cause for the shrinking of the American middle class, and city leaders have a duty to help protect us from it.