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Ballot Measure in California Could be Crucial Test for Giant US Retailer Wal-Mart - 2004-04-06


The future of retail giant Wal-Mart in Southern California may be decided in a local election Tuesday. Voters in Inglewood, California, will decide whether to overrule their city officials and allow construction of a Wal-Mart superstore. It is one of 40 planned for the region. This is the first skirmish in a war between the retailer and community activists.

The issue has divided city leaders and galvanized labor groups and some community organizations.

In Tuesday's election, Inglewood voters will decide on Measure 4A, a ballot initiative funded by Wal-Mart. The measure, some 70 pages long, would approve the company's project and exempt it from many local reviews and hearings.

Wal-Mart collected 10,000 signatures on petitions to get the measure on the ballot after the local city council voted against it. Council members cited concerns that included denser traffic and the lack of benefits for Wal-Mart employees.

Inglewood has a mostly minority population of over 100,000 and is located just east of the Los Angeles airport. Mayor Roosevelt Dorn supports the Wal-Mart project, which he says will bring one thousand permanent jobs and add millions of dollars each year to the city's tax base.

Inglewood council member Eloy Morales was part of the majority that voted against the project. Monday, he attended a rally to oppose the ballot measure.

"We're the ones with the power to send Wal-Mart on its way and tomorrow, that's exactly what we're going to do by voting no on Measure 4A.

Inglewood Mayor Dorn says Wal-Mart will save residents money through its discount merchandise. Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman who represents this city, rejects the argument.

"It's very simple. He's wrong. We're right. Now let me say this," he said. "For people who say we get cheap goods, I want to warn folks that those goods are cheap until they drive everybody out and they're in control and then they have the ability to raise prices, and there's no competition."

Supporters of Wal-Mart say its massive buying power allow the retailer to keep its prices low.

Roosevelt Douglas is a 30-year Inglewood resident who supports the ballot measure, which he says would bring both retail and construction jobs to the city.

"Do you realize how many contract jobs there will be?," he said. "How much cement it will take to build this big corporation (superstore). And not only that, the electricians. It is good locally."

The projected super-center would cover more than a dozen football fields and sell clothing, appliances and groceries. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson calls it an "economic Trojan Horse," an enticement that will only bring disaster. He notes that competition from Wal-Mart led to a bitter five-month strike at California supermarkets, which say they were forced to reduce benefits for newly hired workers to stay competitive with giant discounters. Mr. Jackson says cities around the country are feeling the pressure.

"We've been fighting the same fight against Wal-Mart in Chicago, on the West Side last month, on the south side this month. In Oakland last month, in Inglewood today," he said.

The activist says Wal-Mart undermines American workers by outsourcing its manufacturing to developing countries, where wages are low and benefits are meager.

"This is an international crisis wherein one globalizes capital, but does not globalize worker standards and health standards, environmental standards, standards for women. We do not mind competing with China on an even playing field," he said.

Wal-Mart says labor unions and business competitors are responsible for the opposition to its project.

But even after the votes are counted Tuesday, the issue will not be settled. Within months, the battle will move to Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart plans to build more super-centers.

In Inglewood Monday, Congresswoman Maxine Waters helped to mobilize the voters. "Citizens are going to turn out. We're going to beat them. But let me just say this. In case we don't, if something happens, we'll see them in court," she said.

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