By MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Christian Ramirez (center) leads a community rally against the Wal-Mart under construction in Sherman Heights as part of San Diego’s May Day 2012 events. The sign reads “Wal-Mart Miente” — “Wal-Mart Lies.”
San Diego’s labor movement and an organized community resistance movement in Sherman Heights are holding what they’re advertising as “the largest-ever rally and march against Wal-Mart in San Diego history” Saturday, September 22. The event starts with a preliminary rally and march assembly at 9 a.m. at Golden Hill Community Park, 2590 Golden Hill Drive north of 25th Street and Russ Boulevard. The march will go south to 21st Street and Imperial Avenue in Sherman Heights, where Wal-Mart is building a so-called “neighborhood market” on the site of the old Farmers’ Market. In preliminary meetings with city representatives and neighborhood organizations, Wal-Mart promised to keep the Farmers’ Market intact — but when they actually got the go-ahead to build, they destroyed it.
According to Christian Ramirez, community activist and former San Diego City Council candidate, this has been the pattern of Wal-Mart’s behavior ever since they started the project. “We had a lot of demands, including lighting, but the main one was that Wal-Mart sign a legally binding community benefits agreement,” Ramirez told a meeting of the Sherman Heights Town Council September 12. “One of the first commitments was to preserve the historic character of the old Farmers’ Market. They refused to sign the community agreements, and the building has been destroyed.”
Another one of the neighborhood concerns, Ramirez said, was the direct impact of Wal-Mart’s construction on the area and in particular on its already fragile and overcrowded streets. “Many of their vehicles are going up Sherman Avenue,” Ramirez said. Ramirez also explained that when Wal-Mart first announced their project, only half the site was zoned commercial; the other half was zoned industrial. “Wal-Mart secured permits for the entire site to be zoned commercial, which should not happen,” Ramirez said. “We tried to get city officials to explain [why Wal-Mart got special treatment], and our City Councilmember [David Alvarez] has ignored our requests.”
So the community group went to the state legislature and got help from State Senator Ben Hueso, a former City Councilmember. Hueso promised that he would convene the Senate’s audit committee “to determine if San Diego gave favoritism to Wal-Mart,” Ramirez explained. “This does not mean that construction will be halted, or that we will be able to get city officials in trouble, but it will mean the state will conduct an audit of this and other sites. We’re still concerned that this store is able to come into our community without the necessary permits. I hope the City Councilmember will take this on.”
Most of the Sherman Heights Town Council meeting was conducted in Spanish, but one speaker who addressed the crowd in English was a Wal-Mart worker — or “associate,” as Wal-Mart calls them. The term “associate” is an attempt, since copied by many other employers, to get employees to identify their interests with the company they work for rather than each other — just part of the massive campaign Wal-Mart has waged not only in the U.S. but everywhere in the world to make sure their stores remain union-free.
The associate said that, despite Wal-Mart’s promise when it hired him that there would be opportunities for advancement, he’s been there for 16 years and he’s still doing the same job he did when he started. “The only thing I’ve ever done is push carts,” the associate said. “I make $13.90 per hour, two cents below the livable wage for this county. When I started 16 years ago, I made $6.50 or $6.75 an hour.” The associate asked the group if they had at least been able to get Wal-Mart to promise that Sherman Heights residents would get first crack at the jobs in the new store — and he was told they hadn’t. Wal-Mart representatives had told them the jobs would be “first come, first served” and anyone anywhere in the county could apply.
“I can tell you that Wal-Mart’s contempt for organized labor extends beyond their own associates,” the associate said. “One of the market managers complained how costly it was for them to hire cart-retrieval companies to pick up shopping carts from the neighborhood. They charge $4 per cart, and when my store manager asked why it cost so much money, another Wal-Mart person said, ‘They must belong to unions.’ So they don’t care for unions anywhere in the economy.”
The associate said that he’s been able to make a decent living on his Wal-Mart salary, but only because he’s single. “I live pretty well even though I’m a paycheck away from being homeless,” he said. “I live O.K. because I have nobody to take care of but my mother, but if I had a family, or if I were a single dad with two kids, I couldn’t do it. There’s a worker who’s been a door greeter for 17 years. He has cerebral palsy, he uses a wheelchair and he works part-time. He worked from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the company was O.K. with that, but then they decided they didn’t want to pay for his health insurance. They told him he had to work more hours — and that forced him off Social Security disability. If I don’t help him off his scooter into the store and he’s late too often, he’ll be terminated.”
According to the associate, Wal-Mart’s frantic desire to get out of paying for their workers’ health care is nothing new. “In 2005 they put out a memo that said the biggest concern they had was how much health care costs they’d be paying for their workers, and they needed to attract younger, healthier associates,” he said. The associate added that in recent months his own job has become more difficult as Wal-Mart hasn’t fixed the cart-dispensing machine he’s expected to keep full. They’ve also allowed the four to six motorized carts which used to be available in his store for customers with disabilities to break down and wear out to the point where they can’t be repaired.
Another attendee at the meeting, Daniel Cardena, said that one of the most notorious effects of Wal-Mart on a neighborhood — the way its predatory pricing drives out well-established local businesses — is already happening in Sherman Heights even though the Wal-Mart there hasn’t even opened yet. “Two of my neighbors lost their jobs when La Palapa Marketplace at 25th and Imperial closed, and the liquor store nearby will have to lay off four or five people,” Cardena said. “I don’t want to stay with my arms crossed. Why save 50 cents on a soda when in the end the community will be paying for it?”