Wal-Mart and the battle for the soul of NYC

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 4:45 p.m.

While discussion of Wal-Mart in the mainstream New York media has died down, it doesn't mean that the fight is over. Last week's City Council hearing at the old Emigrant Savings Bank building in Lower Manhattan highlighted much of what's wrong, in some people's eyes, with Wal-Mart's approach to entering the five boroughs and the absurdity of public hearings.

Loud declarations for and against Wal-Mart were expected, but aside from a member of the media jumping up and screaming about not being able to ask questions, the hearing was par for the course. That didn't mean, however, that noteworthy points weren't made.

Wal-Mart had up-to-the-minute counter information ready to combat any facts that council members, guest speakers and studies provided. In a series of e-mails to the AmNews, Wal-Mart attempted to discount anything deemed negative about the organization.

"Wal-Mart is one of the fastest growing employers in the world and one of the most diverse," read one e-mail. "More than 850,000 of its associates are female and make up 59 percent of its U.S. workforce. Thirty-five percent of associates are minorities, including: 249,000 African-Americans, 171,000 Hispanics and 42,000 Asian Americans, and 430,000 associates are age 50 or older. In addition, Wal-Mart's Supplier Diversity Program has grown from an initial $2 million in 1994 to nearly $9.2 billion in 2009."

Councilman Al Vann was one of the first to launch an offensive, indirectly, against Wal-Mart at the hearing. While explaining the purpose of the meeting in its first minutes, Vann called out Wal-Mart for alleged practices against its employees.

"Critics of Wal-Mart have argued that the low prices offered to its customers come at a higher cost to taxpayers," said Vann. "They contend that since 2005, Wal-Mart has been defined as the United States employer with the highest number of employees that rely on public assistance programs such as Medicaid and food stamps in order to meet their needs."

It didn't take long for Wal-Mart to send an e-mail to the AmNews to counter Vann's statement. "Both full- and part-time associates are eligible for benefits, and our goal is to ensure that our plans remain affordable, accessible and high quality," read the e-mail. "We currently offer plans for as low as $11 (associate only) or $33 (associate plus dependants) per pay period. We insure over 1 million people across the country."

Wal-Mart also said that Jason Furman, adviser to President Barack Obama's administration, said that 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, which he said was "similar to the percentage of other large retailers and comparable to the national average of 4 percent."

Then David Merriman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who assisted in a study on the impact of a Wal-Mart that opened on the West Side of Chicago in 2006 and how it impacted small businesses, spoke via video conference during the hearing. In his study, he said that "56 of the 306 businesses we surveyed in 2006 had gone out of business by spring of 2008, and an additional 32 businesses for a total of 88 had gone out of business by the end of our data collection period. Thus, the probability of a business closing during our study period was about 29 percent." Merriman also said that Wal-Mart's store "absorbed retail sales from other city stores without significantly expanding the market.