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Somerville citizen groups gird for fight against Walmart

Posted by Matt Byrne  November 17, 2011 11:30 AM

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A coalition of Somerville community groups critical of Walmart and its plans to bring a grocery store to Assembly Square said they plan to seek concessions from the chain ensuring fair wages, equitable access to health care, and other efforts.

At the first public meeting held of the Coalition for a Responsible Walmart, dozens of citizens and organizers said the retailer's track record contradicts Somerville values, and that plans are underway to wage a public campaign to resist the development.

"This company, this business model and its modus operandi doesn't fit with this community," said Rand Wilson, a union organizer. "I don't think we could attach enough conditions" to satisfy Somerville residents, Wilson said. "Let's be real. We don't want this company in our city."

Part information session, part strategy meeting, many in the audience agreed that Walmart's plans were unacceptable, but views diverged on how to best move forward. Countless communities across the country have fought the retailer's buiness model, organizers said.

As Walmart has expanded into urban areas, organizers face new challenges, said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs for Justice, a group that advocates for fair wages.

"It's not that they're coming into one city," Davis said. In addition to Somerville, Walmart has expressed interest in placing stores in Roxbury and Watertown, he said.

"Each of those towns have their own politics, their own demographics," said Davis, adding later: "I think the question is how much can Walmart really change, or if its just window dressing."

A spokesman for Walmart said that it maintains competitive wages and plans dialogue with the community and civic leaders.

At the meeting Wednesday some Walmart critics set a no-tolerance, "no Walmart" stance, saying that any Walmart presence would be deleterious to the community.

Others said they were distrustful of the retailer's claims of fair wages, and urged the city to lay down conditions which could be attached to a needed change in zoning for food to be sold at the former Circuit City location.

"'No-only' campaigns are less successful in this economy," said Joe Grafton, of Somerville Local First, a group of local businesses. "They have a well oiled [Public Relations] machine that will go in and say people need jobs and low prices right now."

The company's pitch shifts with each community, Davis said. In Roxbury the company pushes potential employment opportunities; In Watertown, traffic in the already heavily commercial town is the most pressing issue. In Somerville, Davis said, it's the social and evironmental impacts that concern most residents who are opposed.

"We've been surprised at how deep the opposition is, on principal," he said, a sentiment he believes is helped by the Occupy Wall Street movement and its local Occupy Boston offshoot, making "people less willing to put up with corporate malfeasance," he said.

In a phone interview, Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo said the company plans to rebut with evidence the perennial worries that seem to follow the chain as it expands into new territory.

Restivo said the Assembly Square location will provide low-cost options for a section of the city with few outlets for fresh produce and healthy food, and says it offers fair, competitive wages.

The average full-time worker at one of the company's 49 locations in the state earns $13.20 an hour, Restivo said.

"Our wages and benefits are as good or better than the majority of the businesses we compete with," he said.

Restivo refuted the claim that small businesses would be squeezed out by the retail giant's power to leverage lower prices from manufacturers.

"We're not going to apologize for having everyday low prices," he said, and suggested that the small businesses that adapt can thrive and grow side by side with Walmart.

"The bottom line is that we want to listen, answer questions, and let people get to know the company," he said. "If we open a store in Somerville and no one comes, we'll have learned a really important lesson about Somerville. Again, we just don't think that's going to happen."

Grafton and others disagree with the claim, saying Somerville does not qualify as a food desert, that the company's wage claims are deceptive, and that it has a history of forcing out small businesses.

Kim Quartimon, who worked at a Seattle-area Walmart for seven years now advocates against her former employer's hiring practices, said the chain makes promises during the early planning phases of a store's opening and never follows through.

"They tell you can move up rapidly in the company and there can be career advancement," Quartimon said in a phone interview Thursday. Those promises either never materialize, or the company fails to full live up to its commitments, she said.

"They tend to keep you at poverty wage levels," she said. "The only ones who are benefiting are Walmart."

The retailer has not signed a lease agreement for the Assembly Square property and still must submit to the city zoning process. A lease could be signed by the end of the year, with development plans to follow early in 2012.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone has expressed similar concerns about the company's wage and hiring practices, and vowed dialogue with corporation representatives as the permitting phase moves forward.

Besides wages and benefits, residents last night said the Assembly Square location -- which has limited pedestrian and bicycle connectivity to the rest of the city -- would offer scant access to the large number of city residents who don't own a car.

Others feared a legal challenge by the company if the city rejects the zoning request, which could result in a protracted legal fight.

Somerville At-large Alderman Bill White said any conditions placed on  wages, hiring, and benefits cannot be attached to zoning permits, but could be more successfully be addressed through a covenant agreement, a legal way to set standards for a development.

A similar document was employed for the Maxwell's Green housing development near Davis Square, which was also the nexus of labor disputes before construction began.

At the meeting, pessimism pervaded some who commented on the process.

"They will wear you down,"  said Barbara Steiner, a Union Square resident,  who said residents would be facing the near-unlimited resources of a multinational company if the dispute were to go to court. 

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