Retail Politics

Written by Chris Bragg on . Posted in Posts.

For all the complaints and protests about Wal-Mart’s plans to open a store within the five boroughs, the superstore could break ground tomorrow as long as it finds a site that is properly zoned—hardly a problem in retail-friendly New York.

That has not stopped anti-Wal-Mart union leaders from asking City Council Members to flex the shred of land use authority they do have, given the circumstances.

The Council may not be able to block Wal-Mart, but, the union officials say, they want members to commit to making future deals more difficult for developers who allow the Arkansas-based discount chain into the city.

"Related and Vornado do a lot of business in this city, and I’m not sure they want to be the ones to herald Wal-Mart in," UFCW Local 1500 political director Pat Purcell said. "It’s not advisable to be the ambassador for a hostile party."

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said that he was particularly concerned by Related. The developer has said it is exploring opportunities with Wal-Mart, though Appelbaum insists that Council Member Charles Barron was promised that Wal-Mart would not be a tenant at the Gateway II mall—one possible site that the retail giant is exploring—when Barron’s East New York district was rezoned for the development in 2009.

With the many technicalities written into city land use law, council members could make life increasingly difficult for targeted developers. Those within the anti-Wal-Mart campaign say that they would ask more people to look at the example of Council Member Gale Brewer, who has often used the rules to stop or slow development she opposes from coming into her Upper West Side district. (A spokeswoman for Related declined comment.)

Queens Council Member Mark Weprin, head of the Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee, said that while he shares concerns about locating a Wal-Mart in New York City, the union strategy was too much for him. "That doesn’t seem appropriate to me," Weprin said. "I’m not sure it would even be constitutional to restrain trade like that. Projects should be judged on the merits, not based on some bad action in the past."

Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman who has been leading the company’s public relations drive in the city, said that there are as many potential sites and developers in the five boroughs as there are selections in any of his company’s stores. "We are evaluating opportunities large and small, and are in conversations with developers, but also with brokers and landlords," Restivo said.

While unions are playing an insider game with the Council, Wal-Mart’s strategy is to put pressure on Council members by going to their constituents. Pollster Doug Schoen has done polling in 10 Council districts, showing popular support for opening a store. Constituents are being targeted with direct mail and radio spots touting Wal-Mart’s low prices and the jobs the company could bring to these neighborhoods.

The union strategy is not the only inside game that matters for Council members. Christine Quinn has been a clear and vocal opponent of the chain’s entry to New York City. Even Council members facing intense pro-Wal-Mart pressure in their districts would likely steer clear of support, for fear of crossing the speaker. People involved in the pro-Wal-Mart effort acknowledge that overcoming this factor may prove the biggest challenge, and one tactic that is already being employed is pushing the idea that the locally-grown produce sold at the stores would fit perfectly with Quinn’s new food policy push. Another tactic is pressing the idea that the unions most likely to support her if she runs for mayor in 2013 are precisely the ones likely to come out in favor of a Wal-Mart.

For both the opposing unions and Quinn, the vilification of Wal-Mart represents something of a shift in policy from previous efforts by big-box stores in New York City. The unions were largely silent, for instance, when Target, Marshalls and Costco opened locations this summer at the new East River Plaza in Harlem. Quinn even cut the ribbon at the complex’s grand opening. Community groups that opposed the project now say it has ruined the character of the neighborhood, killing small businesses and increas-ing traffic.

A spokesperson for Quinn said that the speaker was not generally opposed to big-box stores in New York City, but is against Wal-Mart because of its abysmal labor record, citing lawsuits for almost a billion dollars in unpaid wages and for gender discrimination, and problems with the company’s business plan.

Promises by the big-box stores to give 60 percent of all jobs to local residents in the first year have also not been met, according to Marina Ortiz, head of East Harlem Preservation.

Wal-Mart complains that opponents have unfairly singled out the company, citing the other chains that have been allowed into New York despite employing non-union workers. And Target, they point out, also sells groceries. But union officials say that even though Target, like Wal-Mart, is not unionized, the labor practices between the two companies do not compare.

"Comparing the flaws in the labor practices of Target and Wal-Mart is like comparing a jaywalker to a serial killer," UFCW’s Purcell said.

Appelbaum also said that part of the reason RWDSU did not get involved more heavily in the fights against Target and other big-box stores was because he believes Wal-Mart has worse labor practices.

The company’s presence here, he said, would have a trickledown effect on the labor practices of other big retailers in New York City.

"Yes, absolutely," said Appelbaum, when asked if Wal-Mart represents something of a symbolic line in the sand for the labor movement here. "They’re the largest employer in the country and they’re the worst employer in the county. People here would try to follow the Wal-Mart model."

A version of this story originally ran in City Hall. Read more at