My vote on Walmart

And why I’m glad I’m not a member of the City Council

I’m writing this on Tuesday, Sept. 22. The Chico City Council is meeting tonight, and it may make a decision about Walmart’s proposed expansion into a supercenter. Then again, it may not. If time runs out, council members could decide to continue the hearing for a third go-around. (Click here for our report.)

I understand why they’d be tempted to do that. My guess is that, with the exception of Larry Wahl, whose belief in the mythical “free market” is almost religious in nature, council members have mixed feelings about the expansion. It’s a tough call, and people are going to be ticked off and slinging lawsuits no matter how council members vote. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

It’s amusing how fired up Chicoans can get over small potatoes. Expanding the Chico Walmart into a supercenter isn’t going to ruin the town, so we might as well take a deep breath, collectively speaking, and relax. It’s a good fight, but it’s not a fight to the death.

I admit I’m no fan of Walmart. Corporate capitalism is a dog-eat-dog world, and Walmart has been a really big, really vicious dog for a long time. It’s parlayed cutthroat tactics and a fundamentalist creed—more stuff for less money—into a behemoth that bestrides the world. It’s kept prices low by imposing low wages, busting unions and putting the squeeze on suppliers.

Just as important, the local supercenter seems likely to knock off at least one of the three discount groceries already located in southeast Chico.

And who are they? Costco and Food Maxx are both union shops offering living wages and good health-insurance plans. (Worth noting: Costco’s founder and CEO limits his salary to around $400,000, figuring any more than that is obscene.) WinCo is owned by its employees, pays them good salaries and shares its profits with them.

Yes, Walmart offers low prices, which is good for people who are struggling economically, but so do these other stores—along with good wages and laudatory corporate ethics. Is it any wonder they’ve been welcomed into the community, while Walmart has been scorned?

Walmart knows its bad rep has been hurting its stock value and lately has been cleaning up its act, becoming more community-conscious, erecting green buildings, and supporting health-care reform. And its new “Project Impact” remodeling effort to create cleaner, less-cluttered stores has made the Chico store more attractive.

But, as a recent article on points out, the company is as intent as ever on crushing the competition. Current targets: Kmart, Rite Aid and Toys ‘R’ Us, the latter being the last of five major toy retailers left standing.

Does the City Council have a right to say no to Walmart? Of course. And, as its Planning Commission has pointed out, it has good reasons to do so. The expansion doesn’t conform to the existing zoning, and the need for the project doesn’t override its negative environmental impacts. Indeed, with three discount markets already in the area, there is no need for the expansion.

So I vote no. Not that it makes any difference. I’m not on the council, fortunately.