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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Wal-Mart Skips Council Hearing as Impact of Stores Is Assailed

It was a moment long planned and carefully prepared for — a moment that had twice been delayed by snow. But when the moment finally arrived, the main protagonist was missing.

The City Council held a hearing on Thursday afternoon to examine the economic impact Wal-Mart would have should it succeed in opening its first stores in New York City.

But Wal-Mart’s official representatives were no-shows, which was something company officials had made clear would happen weeks ago when the hearing was first scheduled.

So critics,** from council members to representatives of small businesses, had no one to direct their anger at and spent hours making the same familiar arguments — the death of family-owned businesses, poor labor practices by Wal-Mart — to a mostly sympathetic audience.

The reason no one from Wal-Mart accepted an invitation, a spokesman for the retail giant said, was that it felt it was being singled out unfairly in a city full of big-box stores, including Home Depot, Sears and Target.

“Our decision not to attend today’s hearing has nothing to do with our willingness to answer questions or our belief that our stores would be good for New York City,” the spokesman, Steven Restivo, said, “and everything to do with the hypothetical nature of the proceedings and the fact that it ignores the hundreds of similarly sized stores that exist in the city today.”

The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, wasted no time pointing out Wal-Mart’s absence.

“I want to say how deeply disappointed I am that one very important part of the equation, Wal-Mart, decided not to join us here today,” she said as the hearing began. She said the company’s “refusal to attend, sadly, only leads me to be further skeptical about them as a company.”

Several council members said they shared her misgivings.

“My community needs jobs, but even if you’re hungry, someone shouldn’t feed you garbage,” Councilman Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn said.

The verbal volleys against Wal-Mart started early. At a rally on the steps of City Hall before the hearing, a crowd of more than 300 people waved anti-Wal-Mart signs as the public advocate, Bill de Blasio, called the company destructive and a “Trojan horse.”

And Councilman Charles Barron, who represents the East New York section of Brooklyn, one of the places where Wal-Mart is considering opening a store, called the store “a plantation.”

Two hours into the hearing, Andy Sullivan, the founder of a group called 911 Hard Hats and a union construction worker who had come to testify in favor of Wal-Mart, stood up and complained that no one on his side had yet had a chance to testify.

When it was his turn, Mr. Sullivan noted that Wal-Mart had recently made final a deal with a politically powerful construction union, the Building and Construction Trades Council, promising to build and renovate its stores in the five boroughs with union workers for five years. Wal-Mart used the same strategy to gain support for stores in Chicago several years ago.

“The pain is here, it is now,” Mr. Sullivan during his testimony, citing what he said was a 30 percent unemployment rate among unionized construction workers. “It’s not being caused by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart’s not here!”

Charles Fisher, the chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council in Harlem, also spoke in favor of Wal-Mart. Last year, Wal-Mart flew Mr. Fisher down to its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., at the company’s expense, for a three-day “stakeholder summit” of community leaders from around the country.

Instead of speaking directly to the Council, Wal-Mart, which has not announced a specific store opening in New York, has begun an all-out publicity drive, with direct mailings, radio advertisements and a Facebook page.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has said that New York should be open to any legal business that wants to come here, was asked by a reporter on Thursday about the hearing and if it was in the city’s best interest to let Wal-Mart set up shop.

“You should let the marketplace decide,” he said. “Anybody who has tried to manage the marketplace, it has not turned out very well. I think the Soviet Union is as good an example as you’d ever need of that.”

**Supported by Make the Road New York (MRNY).

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