Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton used to claim that he would never build a store in a town that didn’t want one. Whether true or not, it was at least the right thing to say. Since Walton’s death in 1992, however, Wal-Mart has largely dropped the pretense, forcing its way into Vermont (the last state to succumb to the world’s largest retailer) and building up an army of lawyers who convince zoning boards to grant waivers to allow 40-acre parking lots and threaten city councils that suspect that Wal-Mart’s “Always Low Prices” might, in the end, mean fewer choices for consumers and fewer jobs for workers as local merchants are forced out of business.
Recently, however, facing stiffer opposition from local authorities, Wal-Mart has adopted a new strategy that seems more consistent with Sam Walton’s claim and which—purely coincidentally, of course—might allow the chain to do an end run around local government: Take the issue directly to the people. The test case came in Inglewood, California, where Wal-Mart gathered 10,000 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot after the city council successfully held the Arkansas empire at bay last year. The company had the support of Inglewood’s mayor, Roosevelt Doorn, who said that the five million dollars in new tax revenues that Wal-Mart’s planned Supercenter would generate made the referendum a “no-brainer.”
There was just one little problem: It turns out that the city council was faithfully representing the views of the citizens of Inglewood. On April 6, by a two-to-one vote, the mostly black and Hispanic population of this Los Angeles suburb told Wal-Mart to go back to Little Rock.
This was no minor defeat: The company spent more than one million dollars on advertising leading up to the vote—a drop in the bucket compared with Wal-Mart’s $244.5 billion in sales last fiscal year, but many times the amount that opponents spent to defeat the referendum. And it bodes ill for the company’s plans to capture 20 percent of California’s food market by building 40 Supercenters in the state. Oakland and San Diego have already passed legislation that will make it hard, if not impossible, for Wal-Mart to locate in those cities.
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Rachel Morris, an opponent of the referendum, portrayed the battle as one against the forces of centralization. “The last thing we wanted was for a corporation which is not a democracy to come in here and act like a sovereign nation. . . . They were trying to tell residents that Wal-Mart is so big that they don’t have to follow state and local laws. That is a nightmare and we didn’t buy it.”
Supporters of Wal-Mart have downplayed the significance of the referendum, claiming that labor unions and liberal politicians, including Jesse Jackson, misled Inglewood’s voters about the potential benefits of joining the Wal-Mart empire, and some libertarians even tried to claim that Inglewood is nothing more than a series of strip malls and national chain stores, so one more—even one the size of 17 football fields—wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway.
All of that, however, begs the question: Who should determine the economic future of a city, its residents or the Little Rock mafia (as opponents refer to Wal-Mart’s lawyers)? The people of Inglewood clearly do not want Wal-Mart’s “help”—nor, apparently, do they need it. In 2003, the city received an Award of Merit from the California Downtown Association for its efforts in marketing its downtown and increasing retail traffic among local businesses. In one very successful program, local merchants offer discounts to people who live or work in Inglewood. Money spent at those merchants stays in the local economy, benefitting residents and merchants alike. Money spent at Wal-Mart pays slave-labor wages to Chinese workers and further enriches five of the eight wealthiest people in the United States.
Mayor Doorn was right: The referendum was a “no-brainer.” Perhaps the people of Inglewood, who had the brains to see that, may find their next mayoral election to be a no-brainer as well.