Southfield, Mich. — With over 10,500 stores worldwide, Walmart, the world’s biggest corporation, has a wealth of experience in dealing with community opposition when it wants to open yet another superstore. But the multinational working-class city of Southfield, Mich., sent this corporate giant the message that it would have to find another location for its next exploitive venture.
Walmart hurts local economies by undercutting family businesses and unionized supermarkets and exerting competitive pressure that drags down all workers’ wages. With an average wage of $8.81 an hour, according to Making Change at Walmart, a Walmart worker’s typical annual income of around $15,000 is about equal to the poverty threshold for a two-person household. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
On Jan. 27, the Southfield City Council met to decide whether to change the zoning designation of a particularly high traffic area from “B2” to “B3.” The B3 category would have allowed the Catholic Diocese of Detroit to sell the parcel encompassing a closed church building to Walmart. With the company pledging to provide 300 new jobs and replace a structure that had been vacant for years, the Council appeared to be leaning towards allowing the store to be built.
Walmart made it clear that it would sue Southfield if the store was blocked on “moral” grounds. Denying the permit because of the corporation’s opposition to unions, to its policies of discrimination, low wages and the sweatshop conditions where the products it sells are manufactured would drag the struggling city into long and costly court battles. Thus, opponents had to make strong arguments that allowing a big box store at that particular intersection would create problems such as traffic congestion, strain on the electrical grid and lower property values.
This corporate “person” — who is indirectly responsible for dozens of fire-related deaths in two Bangladeshi garment factories — dares to use the First Amendment to force itself into a community. However, hundreds of people filled every seat in the Council chambers and, once the chambers were full, watched the sessions on closed-circuit television. In the six-hour hearing that lasted past midnight, 72 people, most of them Southfield residents, made convincing cases against the zoning changes. Some did feel compelled to speak against Walmart’s worldwide abuse of workers.
There were restrictions on free speech during the hearing — no signs, no calling out, even no applause — so hands shot up in the air in Occupy fashion after every comment in opposition to Walmart. Community members and labor activists stood up and danced in celebration when the Council voted 5-to-1, with one abstention, to retain the current zoning restriction.
“David — the community — beat Goliath,” said Ken Whitaker, campaign coordinator for Metro Detroit AFL-CIO and the new organizer for Jobs With Justice, “and, we celebrate … but do not put away the slingshots.”