Wal-Mart takes a licking

The world’s biggest company, Wal-Mart, which is notorious for riding roughshod over opposition to its aggressive—some say cancerous—expansion, got a well-deserved kick in the butt this week in Inglewood, much to its surprise, we expect.

On Tuesday, April 6, voters in this biracial (African American and Latino) working-class Los Angeles County city of 112,000 soundly defeated, 7,049-4,575, a Wal-Mart-sponsored initiative that would have bypassed uncooperative local officials and allowed the company to build a shopping center the size of 17 football fields without environmental review, public hearings or city approval. Wal-Mart planned to build one of its 40 new California “Supercenters” on the site.

Not that Wal-Mart didn’t pull out all the stops, as 82-year-old Annie Lee Martin experienced first-hand. When she was entering her seniors’ complex one day, a photographer snapped her picture, explaining that it was part of an effort to bring the store and its jobs to the community. Knowing little about the issue, Martin signed a document that she thought was a petition, only to discover later that it was a photo release. Her face turned up on a flier Wal-Mart sent out before the election, along with a number of supportive comments, none of which she actually made. “All the words on that letter that went out, none of them are true,” she told the LA Weekly. “I didn’t write them. For one thing, the letter says I’ve lived in Inglewood for 50 years. I’ve only lived here 13 years.”

Wal-Mart’s duplicity came back to bite it. When word spread among members of Martin’s church about what had happened to her, they became galvanized and hit the streets to oppose the initiative.

Wal-Mart spent more than $1 million on a public-relations blitz, but strong opposition from unions, churches, small-business owners and local officials, who warned against such an unprecedented attempt to circumvent the planning process, prevailed in the end.

Nobody knows what Wal-Mart will do next in Inglewood. Everywhere it meets resistance to its Supercenters, it fights fiercely to overcome it. But the Inglewood story should give heart to those who see the corporation as monolithic. It can be beaten.