Why do people hate Walmart?

Commission hearing brings out the animosity—but some appreciation as well

What is it about Walmart that inspires so much animosity?

Anybody who sat through last Thursday’s (July 23) Planning Commission hearing on the mega-corporation’s proposal to expand its Chico store into a “supercenter” saw ample evidence of the hatred many people feel toward the company.

Take Alan Gair, for example. The transplanted Englishman, who speaks often at public hearings in support of liberal causes, called it “a very dangerous, monopolistic company” and urged the commission to “protect Chico’s consumers from this monster.”

Gair was far from alone in his condemnation. Beverly Robertson referred to Walmart’s “rather seedy” reputation. Others assailed its anti-unionism, feeble benefits and alleged mistreatment of workers, its reliance on goods from greenhouse-gas-producing China, and its tendency to drive mom-and-pop and unionized stores out of business, ruin downtowns and squeeze suppliers relentlessly.

You don’t hear that kind of vituperation toward, say, Kmart, Target or Lowe’s. It’s as if Walmart has become emblematic of something many Americans hate about their culture. And yet the company continues to prosper, even in the recession, driven by consumers seeking deals.

Certainly it has its local advocates. For every person who stood up to criticize it last week, there was another who spoke in its favor. Some, like Stacy Sasselli, who’s worked at the Chico store for 15 years, said it was a good employer that rewarded good workers. Stasselli said she’d been able to buy a home and a new car on her Walmart income.

Others were folks on Social Security or disability who said Walmart was the store where their limited funds went furthest. Some said they liked “the choice” that Walmart provided—that they shopped at many stores, including Walmart, and appreciated all the options.

Some also praised the company’s charitable efforts. Wanda Story, for example, pointed out that last winter Walmart gave every child at Chapman School a new coat. And a representative of the Kirshner Wildlife Foundation said Walmart was one of its biggest supporters.

In fact, Walmart recently has realized that its poor reputation is a major problem. Its stock values have been lower than its profits and assets warrant, and it runs into resistance in virtually every community where it seeks to open a new store.

Since 2006, the company has been working hard to burnish its image. In addition to its charitable pursuits, it’s now building more “green” stores—the planned Chico expansion among them. And it made news earlier this month when it threw its weight behind President Obama’s goal of requiring every employer to provide health coverage.

“We’ve said for some time that we support health-care reform,” Greg Rossiter, a company spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. “It needs to be comprehensive and it needs to happen.”

And yet only 52 percent of Walmart employees are insured through the company. The rest look elsewhere for coverage—some to the taxpayer-financed Medicaid program.

At last week’s hearing, Walmart representatives tried to focus discussion on what they contended were the only relevant issues—whether the project conformed to city land-use and state environmental guidelines. All the discussion about Walmart’s practices, they insisted, were irrelevant.

“It’s disheartening that this project, which from a land-use perspective is fairly simple, has taken six years, during which numerous other applicants have come through and gone on to construction,” Meriam Montesinos, an attorney representing Walmart, told the commission.

In response to criticisms that Walmart’s own environmental-impact report noted “significant and unavoidable” air-pollution impacts from increased traffic, Montesinos noted this was the fourth project with such impacts, naming the new Costco, Meriam Park and the Enloe Medical Center expansion, all of which were approved.

But when Walmart public-relations spokeswoman Angie Stoner was unable to guarantee that at least 80 percent of the people hired at the new store would be from Chico, Commissioner Jon Luvaas responded that it might be hard to find “overriding considerations”—such as jobs—that would offset the unavoidable impacts.

Setting land-use issues aside, Luvaas grilled Stoner relentlessly about the company’s relationship with China. “What percentage of your goods come from China?” he asked. When Stoner said she didn’t know, he insisted it was important. “The U.S. is bleeding jobs,” he said. “I can’t tell whether we’re coming out ahead or ending up much worse in terms of jobs [by expanding Walmart].”

And how about all those coal-fired power plants in China? “If Walmart is buying from a country producing massive amounts of greenhouse gasses, that’s something we should know about,” Luvaas insisted.

And so it goes in the Walmart wars. The commission continued the hearing until tonight (Thursday, July 30) at 6:30, when members will discuss it among themselves and make a decision. Whatever that is, it will undoubtedly be appealed to the City Council, where once again Walmart haters and lovers alike will get a chance to speak their minds.