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Unstoppable

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Wal-Mart’s critics will no doubt regard Scott’s arguments not as smart but as self-serving. Predictably, he glosses over a mountain of evidence that suggests the firm is a model employer in the way that Arthur Andersen was a model accounting firm. Wal-Mart is fighting scores of “wage and hour” lawsuits involving managers said to have either tolerated or compelled off-the-clock work. (In Bentonville, Williams stressed that Wal-Mart’s new approach to such incidents is to fire the managers immediately—but then Scott chimed in, “I do worry about all the firings, though.”) Last year, Wal-Mart paid a record $11 million to settle an investigation by U.S. Immigration officials into its hiring of undocumented workers. The firm is currently facing the largest class-action suit ever certified: a sex-discrimination case that could include the claims of 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees.

“Why $12 an hour? Why not $20? There are countries that have tried that, and it didn’t work well. I mean, Look at Europe!”

This bill of lading is troubling, to be sure, but it’s only one source, and perhaps the least significant, of New York’s hostility to Wal-Mart. More powerful and deeply rooted are the city’s singular self-image, its collective neuroses and prejudices (which are, after all, as extravagant and fully developed as those of any Woody Allen character), and an array of entrenched economic interests that are, just as Scott asserted, profoundly threatened by the impending Wal-Mart invasion.

Dominating the last category, of course, are the city’s unions—in particular the UFCW. As Wal-Mart has moved away from selling only dry goods and into the supermarket game, the grocery-workers union has become, across the country, the company’s fiercest opponent. In New York, the UFCW remains one of labor’s most robust divisions; its role in the Rego Park dustup was, by all accounts, pivotal. It’s also one reason, say many economists, that food prices in the city are so much higher than they ought to be. In any event, if you’ve ever wondered why Target has set up shop here with very little hassle—despite being nonunion and paying its workers as poorly as Wal-Mart does—the reason is that Target doesn’t compete with grocery stores (yet) and thus imperil the UFCW.

Reinforcing the clout of the unions is a more evanescent but no less potent force: Manhattanite snobbery. In the outer boroughs, where shopping outposts are scarce, badly stocked, and painfully overpriced, big boxes have been met with open arms by consumers—and there’s no reason to think that Wal-Mart wouldn’t be, too. (For what it’s worth, a Wal-Mart–commissioned poll by the Marino Organization found that 62 percent of New Yorkers favor the company’s entering the city.) In Manhattan, though, that shoppers’ Xanadu, the need for Wal-Mart is minimal and the desire for it close to zero. The objections are partly political, but even more so, they’re aesthetic: Wal-Mart is ugly, tacky, down-market. (The very idea of shopping at a store because it’s cheap—ick.) Never mind that precious few Manhattanites have ever encountered a Wal-Mart. Their contemptuousness colors the debate anyway, especially in the press.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the snobs at the barricades are the nostalgists for Old New York. Anti–Wal-Mart leader Richard Lipsky writes on the Neighborhood Retail Alliance’s blog that a key element of the campaign against the company is a “conservative populist” appeal: that Wal-Mart will destroy the commercial fabric of the city. Propounding what he calls the “neighborhood character” argument, Lipsky holds forth: “For conservative Wal-Mart supporters who have never lived in an urban atmosphere, it is difficult to comprehend the importance of walk-to-shop commercial strips, mom-and-pop shops, and the general aversion to suburban-style developments.”

Having heard Lipsky deploy this argument during the Rego Park imbroglio, and curious about the neighborhood character Wal-Mart would have disrupted, I drove out and had a look around the site of the incipient Vornado development. Within a few blocks of where Wal-Mart’s first New York City store would have stood, I saw a CVS, a Payless, a Pizza Hut, a Baskin-Robbins, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Subway, and a Sizzler. Also a Bed Bath & Beyond, an Old Navy, a Circuit City, a Sears, and a Marshalls. (Corner stores were there as well, but they were few and far between.)

The point, to be clear, isn’t that neighborhood character doesn’t matter. It’s that when it comes to the matter of national chains taking over the New York retail landscape, the horse escaped the barn long ago—and shutting out Wal-Mart won’t do a damn thing to drag it back in again.

As we wait for the inevitable next installment of Wal Mart vs. New York, it’s helpful to recall that the city has seen a movie quite like this before.

In 1974, McDonald’s, having neglected urban markets as it pioneered the American fast-food business, announced its intention to open a restaurant at 66th and Lexington. As John F. Love recounts in his history McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, the outcry was swift and severe. Picket lines formed in front of the construction site. Opponents stormed a community-board hearing to rail against the project. Wall Street analysts downgraded the company’s stock, citing the stiff challenges it faced in urban markets. In a cover story in the Times Magazine, food editor Mimi Sheraton wrote a scalding piece, “The Burger That’s Eating New York,” in which she not only trashed the Big Mac, but also attacked founder Ray Kroc for contributing cash to Richard Nixon’s campaign. According to PR guru Howard Rubenstein, who spun for McDonald’s amid the turmoil, “It was one of the most brutal confrontations any community has ever organized against a business.”


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