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No red carpet for Walmart Market

Grocery store faces obstacles in Somerville

By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2011

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s plan to open its first grocery-only market in the Northeast in Somerville is already running into a roadblock, as the city’s mayor is raising questions about the retail giant’s employee practices.

Joseph Curtatone said in a statement yesterday that he has “deep concerns about Wal-Mart’s labor policies that must be addressed before we can support them moving into our community.’’

Curtatone has leverage: The company needs a zoning permit to operate at its target location on Mystic Avenue, near the Assembly Square shopping plaza. The site, which previously housed the defunct retailer Circuit City, has a zoning permit to sell electronics, and Wal-Mart would have to go before a Somerville planning board to receive a special permit to sell food, according to city spokesman Michael Meehan.

Wal-Mart expects to soon sign a lease for the former Circuit City building, located in densely packed district of commercial plazas, for its first local Walmart Market, a medium-sized grocery store that is part of the company’s strategy to increase its presence in urban areas by opening smaller outlets. The Walmart Market would be about 34,000 square feet, less than half the size of a typical Walmart box store.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said the company comes up against similar objections across the country and doesn’t see the zoning permit as problem.

“I would say that what we’re finding in Massachusetts and across the country is that the more people get to know the facts about the company the more they see the value in bringing a Walmart to their community,’’ he said.

Meehan said Curtatone is on vacation and not available for further comment on Wal-Mart’s labor practices. But community activists have long targeted the Arkansas retailer, complaining it pays employees poorly, offers too little in the way of benefits, and fights workers’ efforts to air grievances.

A group of female employees has sued the company, alleging it discriminated against women by paying them less than it pays men in comparable jobs and offering them fewer opportunities for promotion. The US Supreme Court recently rejected the plaintiffs’ request to have their complaints combined into a nationwide class-action suit, so the women said they would pursue their claims in lower courts.

Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, is organizing opposition to Wal-Mart openings in the state, hoping to pressure the company into improving its compensation practices. Wal-Mart’s goal, Davis said, “is to make as much money as it can and it does that by squeezing workers and suppliers.’’

But spokesman Restivo contended Wal-Mart’s wages and benefits at its Massachusetts stores are comparable to competitors, with an average wage of nonmanagement employees of $13.18 an hour. It has 49 stores in Massachusetts employing nearly 12,000 people.

In Somerville, Wal-Mart could be in for a fight, depending on how deeply Curtatone digs in. Getting a zoning permit can take months, or depending on the opposition, years, Meehan said.

Meehan said the city planning board has rejected requests for special permits, and added that the applicant’s reputation and practices as an employer may factor into the city’s decision.

For example, the planning board rejected Ocean State Job Lot’s request to open a store at a vacant building in Winter Hill last year because officials did not like the image the discount retailer projects. Having a Job Lot there, the board said, would “limit the ability to bring new amenities to the Winter Hill neighborhood.’’ Somerville was subsequently sued by the property owner and Ocean State Job Lot officials said they did not feel welcome by the mayor.

Taryn Luna can be reached at tluna@globe.com.