Wal-Mart is excited that a resident of the Florence-Firestone neighborhood near Watts, in Los Angeles, California, is agitating for a superstore. That’s what the company is spending money to do in California: organize its base. Wal-Mart has set up a “Customer Action Network” (go to: www.wal-martcan.com) designed to allow the company to work behind an ‘astro-roots’ group of ‘customers’ that the giant retailer gets to push for new stores. The Wal-Mart CAN is based in Van Nuys, California, and is targeted to the California region. There is also a CAN effort underway in New England. By setting up local residents to ‘petition’ for a store, Wal-Mart can create the impression that there is a groundswell of support for more superstores. Wal-Mart has been imitating grassroots organizing groups for years, but in the past year or so has turned to its “Customer Action Network” to counter its opponents on a city-by-city basis. It also allows Wal-Mart to remain in the background. The ruse has worked with the media. The most recent example is from the Los Angeles Times, which carried a major story on February 27, 2009 about a 51 year old man named Eddie Caire, who is carrying around a petition for a new Wal-Mart supercenter in a city that thus far has not been friendly to Wal-Mart. Caire says that more than 3,000 people have signed his petition. The LA Times describes Caire as a former Marine, former union organizer, and small business man who cleans up after construction sites. The newspaper describes Caire as a “civic activist of sorts” who “decided late last year” that a Wal-Mart supercenter in Florence “would amount to Florence’s salvation.” Caire reached this epiphany after realizing that there were few grocery stores in his neighborhood. “The people who have the least are expected to pay the most,” he told the LA Times. Caire also says his main motivation is jobs. “I’m not so foolish as to think that we wouldn’t put some people out of business,” he admitted to the newspaper. “But this is a no-brainer.” That statement was challenged in the story by Los Angeles County’s senior deputy for economic development. The reporter for the LA Times said that “Wal-Mart itself, predictably, is quite pleased” with Caire’s efforts, and acknowleged that Caire had sent the company a list of 11 sites they could build on. The retailer told the newspaper it wanted to be “part of the solution” for the Florence community.
It is not clear if the LA Times asked Caire if he had ever heard of the Wal-Mart Customer Action Network, which was created by Wal-Mart as a proactive way to fend off strong anti-Wal-Mart organizing, especially in California, which led to the company’s defeat in Ingleside, California, and many other communities up and down the state. Wal-Mart promises that people who join their Customer Action Network will receive “important bulletins and e-mail alerts, invitations to special in-store events and receptions, and information on important issues affecting us all and how you can make a difference.” The company explains that CAN “is a program to keep customers informed about government issues that affect Wal-Mart and its ability to provide good value for your shopping dollar.” Wal-Mart has aggressively set up CAN activities 280 miles north of Los Angeles in the city of Patterson, California, where the retailer created a special website to attract people like Eddie Caire. The company trains consumers how to write a letter to the editor, or contact city officials. When members join the CAN, they are asked to indicate if they are willing to write to newspapers, host a forum or organize an event, do surrogate speaking, contact elected officials, and attend city council functions. In other words, to do exactly what Eddie Caire is doing for Wal-Mart in Los Angeles. Eddie Caire is right about one thing: the Wal-Mart jobs issue is a “no brainer.” There are little or no new net jobs when a superstore opens. There is a reason why cities from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to New York City have fought back to keep Wal-Mart out. Inviting Wal-Mart to your neighborhood is like inviting the cannibals to dinner. Yet the LA Times claims that Wal-Mart “will bring jobs and low prices” to Florence. Even Eddie Caire admits that Wal-Mart will put some people out of business. During the Ingleside, California battle, the ‘voodoo economics’ of Wal-Mart, and their exploitive relationship with their workers, were key issues that tipped the balance against the superstore. Eddie Caire most likely has not read the 2003 Retail Forward study that shows 2 grocery stores will close for every Wal-Mart supercenter that opens. Caire no doubt missed the research by David Neumark, Professor of Economics at U. Cal in Irvine in 2005, which found that “total payrolls per person decline, by about 5% in the aggregate, implying that residents of local labor markets earn less following the opening of Wal-Mart stores.” Neumark’s research found that in the southern states in America, “Wal-Mart reduces retail employment, total employment, and total payrolls per person.” But Eddie Caire will also find out that good land use decisions are not based on petitions. Caire said he was surprised that local merchants who compete with Wal-Mart would sign his petition — but the fact is, most businesses and residents will sign petitions for almost anything, which is why petitions alone are a very blunt instrument when it comes to growth policy. Readers are urged to keep track of Wal-Mart’s Customer Action Network by joining it. In California, call toll-free 1-800-630-9226 and ask to become a CAN member. Or email CAN at: http://www.wal-martcan.com/join.html. When the retailer emails you with instructions, pass the word on to your friends to do just the opposite of whatever CAN wants. The more Wal-Mart opponents who join CAN, the more useless it becomes as an organizing tool — including in Los Angeles. And if Eddie Caire is not a formal member, he ought to join up soon.