AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE:

7 Good Reasons to Vote NO on the 25th Street Station Lowe's/Walmart Project

by Bill Harvey
Monday, 8 November 2010

  1. Walmart is staunchly ANTI-UNION.

    Their record is too long and too nasty to review here but, as the largest private employer in the US, Walmart has been at the forefront of the effort over the last 4 decades to beat down the labor movement. This is true of their policies regarding Walmart workers and their impact spreads throughout the retail sector and to other sectors of the economy including warehousing and light manufacturing. And the current enormous wealth and income disparity for which Walmart is partly responsible indirectly affects the public sector and its unions.

    The labor movement, even in its current battered condition, is a main line of defense for all workers. Some of you may be among those Democratic politicians who seem to be able to imagine the political turnaround our country so sorely needs without a central role for the labor movement. My guess, though, is that not one of you was elected without substantial labor support. So, if you intend to vote for approval of the 25th Street Project, please do the honest thing and notify your labor allies of your intention.

  2. The availability of CHEAP CONSUMER GOODS is one prominent argument we hear on behalf of Walmart's role in American society.

    No doubt this is an important concern for most Baltimoreans, myself included. However, consumer goods spending constitutes a relatively small slice (under 20%) of most family budgets. We'll grasp at every possible saving, but we need real jobs if we are to be able to afford the more expensive budget items- housing, transportation, health care, and retirement. Walmart jobs call for real work, but they don't pay the kind of wages or provide benefits that working people can build a secure and pleasurable life around.

  3. We hear lots of projections of the number of permanent JOBS THAT WILL BE CREATED by the 25th St. Station Project.

    The numbers I hear are usually in the range of 700-1000. Unfortunately, the civic minded social scientists who tout these numbers on behalf of Walmart, Lowe's, and the developer neglect to mention that, whatever the number of jobs gained, it will be largely, if not entirely, offset by the number of jobs lost as a result of the development. Presumably some of you have thought to compare the pre-development projections to the current reality at Walmart in Port Covington. [Have you noticed that the Walmart website lists 147 buildings for sale?] And the fact that no tenants, other than Lowe's and Walmart, have signed on to the 25th St. project should be a matter of concern for those who emphasize jobs creation potential.

    Jobs will be lost in Hampden, along Charles St., along North Ave., and likely as far away as Greenmount Ave. and beyond. Most of these jobs are in small businesses that are better rooted in their communities than we could ever hope for Walmart to be. And there's a strong possibility that we can kiss goodbye to my grocery store, Safeway, at 25th St. and Charles. Safeway employs a substantial number of union workers at somewhat better wages and benefits than Walmart will pay voluntarily.

  4. The WAGES, HOURS, AND CONDITIONS on offer from Walmart are less than we should settle for.

    Even if you are ignorant of Walmart's extensive history on these questions, you might take the recent round of "negotiations" with Councilwoman Conaway as an omen of labor relations things to come. Characteristically, Walmart refused any binding commitment on wage issues and attempted to squeeze the Councilwoman regarding her future support for a Living Wage law. [On the current sorry status of the Living Wage bill, see Cory McCray, "Living Wage Good for Elected Officials, But not Good for Workers" And even the Living Wage standard falls far short of the kind of wages workers would need to build a secure life around a job.

    Walmart's record on health care, retirement and other benefits is just as wretched as their record on wages.

    Community groups in the vicinity of the 25th St. site have been able to negotiate some minimal concessions on issues of traffic flow and landscaping, but got zero on wages. Walmart throws a few crumbs--speed bumps, shrubbery- in order to seem willing to work with communities, but apparently the hyper-exploitation that is the source of the Walton family's billions--five multi-billionaire Waltons are among America's richest people, with four Waltons in the top 10--is non-negotiable.

  5. CORPORATE TAX BREAKS have never been an effective development mechanism for local governments.

    Much has been made of the claim that this project will not involve tax breaks for the developer or the tenants. I heard that claim from three different bill proponents at a Planning Commission hearing. It is true that the usual giveaway mechanisms--TIFs and PILOTs--are not being proposed for this project. However, the use of Maryland Enterprise Zone credits and New Market Tax credits will cost Baltimore and Maryland taxpayers a conservatively estimated $10 million over the next decade. (And do forgive widespread suspicion of the fact that the 25th St. site was re-designated in October, 2009 to make it eligible for these credits.--Do any of you all know anything about this that all of Baltimore's citizens need to hear about?)

    This kind of giveaway, by whatever name it is called, is just one of a long list of plain unjust development strategies that add up to a Reaganesque "trickle down" approach that has been adopted by too many Democratic politicians: Inner Harbor; Big Box; breaks and incentives for real estate developers--Paterakis, Struever, and now Walker; the red carpet for pro sports teams; and gambling, including slots. It trickles down, all right: the rich get richer and we get low paid work.

    [For one recent excellent critique of the wrongheadedness of such corporate welfare, see Bill Barry, "PILOTs are crashing Baltimore's budget," BALTIMORE SUN 6/17/10]

    And PU-LEASE don't try to sell sales tax revenues as an effective development measure. Sales taxes hit poor and working class people disproportionately harder (like the recent bottle tax), resulting in intensifying inequality, just the opposite of the effect needed to create development that would be beneficial to most people. Besides, sales taxes are governed by a kind of zero sum dynamic--that is, the 25th Street development would not create significantly more consumption than already exists. In any case, additional sales taxes won't add up to enough money to make the project an effective revenue enhancer for the city. Moreover, hold in mind that some of this revenue would be offset by losses when other businesses are forced to close as a result of Lowe's and Walmart's presence.

  6. Walmart's wage and benefits policies FORCE MANY WORKERS ON TO THE PUBLIC ASSISTANCE ROLLS for essential services provided by programs like Medicaid, S-CHIP, and food stamps.

    There are many documented cases of Walmart managers actually counseling workers to enrolling in these programs. This is yet another indirect form of corporate welfare that has been key to building the Waltons's fortune.

  7. And what would Walmart do with the the bounty they could reap from the 25th St. project? Among other things, they would turn around and put much of it to use in support of various RIGHT-WING POLITICAL PROJECTS.

    The Waltons' extensive political activism, including cozy relationships with every Republican president, is well-documented. Here I'll mention two examples of their work that should make all Democrats cringe:

    • Newly elected Congressman Tim Griffin in the 2nd District of Walmart's home base of Arkansas won despite being entangled in a scandal about his alleged "caging" of voters--that is, scheming to deny voters' their rights to vote, in this case African-American soldiers deployed to Iraq. [See Greg Palast, "SarahPAC Candidate 'Should Be in Jail'", TRUTHOUT 10/20/10 ] Griffin was supported by both Sarah Palin and the Waltons.
    • The Walton Foundation has been extremely active in education "reform." Among other things, they have bought their way into the public school systems of several major cities. Strings attached funding from the foundation to the DC schools included the stipulation that the money would flow as long as Michelle Rhee was Chancellor of DC schools. In a recent election DC voters dumped Mayor Adrian Fenty in favor of Vincent Gray. One of Fenty's biggest problems was his close association with Michelle Rhee. I don't have an update on what the Walton Foundation will do with their money now that Rhee has been sent on her way by the incoming Gray. [For more on the Waltons' role in the recent debacle in the DC school system, see Leigh Dingerson, "School 'Rheeform' in Washington, DC" RETHINKING SCHOOLS (Fall, 2010)

    These are just two recent examples of the kind of activism that the Waltons have been involved in for more than a half century. The fact that they are also involved with Democrats--contributions to both candidates is as old as the hills- does not change their politics; anyway, many Democrats are nearly indistinguishable from Republicans! Their basic agenda is set, and it does not bode well for the vast majority of Americans. Any Democratic politician who believes that it's possible to partner up with Walmart might just as well jump into the river of big money politics--and drown.

Any one of these points should be enough to at least give you pause to reflect on the meaning of this project- and the overall Walmart approach to development--for Baltimore and our country. When all seven are taken together, the case is overwhelming: Baltimoreans do not need to be doing business with a corporate bully that "provides" "jobs" at poverty level wages and poor benefits, and refuses accountability to the community.

In my travels over the last few months I have found patterns in the way people respond to this proposed development. While most recognize the long-term record of Walmart in the areas I have focused on here--what has be called the "Walmartization" of US society (and the world), resulting in the devastation of the standard of living and the quality of life of most of us. Most people I've talked to see these kinds of concerns to be reason enough to oppose the project.

Supporters of the project, strangely enough, also usually see these problems. But their support usually rests on the fear of the consequences of not supporting it: the prospect of leaving "a giant hole down there" (as if a giant car lot, however well cared for, has been a boon to the neighborhood); and, after all, supporters reason, there will be SOME jobs even if we know in advance that nobody can build a life around the jobs on offer. They settle for too little by allowing their concerns over Walmartization to be outweighed by what they view as our more immediate local concerns- as if Baltimore will magically be an exception to Walmart's well documented track record.

I imagine that this dilemma is particularly acute for the city councilpeople who make the call. But don't settle for too little on our behalf. No, thanks. Consider the possibility that Walmart needs us as much or more than we need them, as evidenced by their recent move into several major cities around the country- witness recent and ongoing contests in Brooklyn, Washington,and Chicago, among others. This strategic turn to urban America results from Walmart's recognition that, if they want to continue to expand, they must be successful on this new turf--our turf. So please don't fail to represent us from this position of strength.

*       *       *

A few days before the recent election signs sprang up all over my neighborhood: "Vote for the Democrats/Obama/We got your back." If you make Remington a doormat for Walmart, then expect more and more Baltimoreans to ask the obvious question: Do the Democrats "got our backs?"


The best sources I know of on Walmart's history are:

Bill Harvey, a local historian and writer, lives in Charles Village.



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This story was published on November 8, 2010.