Opinion: Cool or not, Wal-Mart-esque stores have no place in Brooklyn

Opinion: Cool or not, Wal-Mart-esque stores have no place in Brooklyn

Opinion: Cool or not, Wal-Mart-esque stores have no place in Brooklyn
November 2, 2015

Back in 2013, the prospect of Wal-Mart setting up shop in the five boroughs was one of the few topics that galvanized the different candidates jockeying to be the next mayor.

Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, declared Wal-Mart would open in New York City “over my dead body.” Then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio broke out the scripture, warning Wal-Mart, “As you reap, so shall you sow.”

Wal-Mart’s atrocious record on labor issues is well-known, but worth reviewing: The megastore has paid its workers the minimum wage and denied benefits, forcing taxpayers to subsidize its employees through Medicaid, food stamps and other programs. Wal-Mart has cruelly denied its workers legally required breaks during their shifts, forced them into hours of unpaid overtime, and ruthlessly cracked down on union organizing attempts by firing tens of thousands of employees under illegal false pretenses.

None of these things helped Wal-Mart’s image, but here’s what really doomed it in New York City: It sells cheap crap and its brand is deeply uncool and synonymous with red-state America to Brooklyn’s upwardly mobile population. Even the true leaders of the Republican Party – Wall Street’s laissez-faire Masters of the Universe – would certainly invest in Wal-Mart, but wouldn’t be caught dead shopping in one.

I mention Wal-Mart because there’s another soulless labor abuser set to waltz into town – Wegmans. But rather than continuing the sharp rhetoric that kept Wal-Mart at bay, we’re welcoming the big-box grocery store with flattery and a generous helping of public subsidies.

And the only difference? The upper-middle-class creative set has declared them cool.

Wegmans’ labor record is weak enough that it would be more appropriate to call them “Weg-Mart.” And yet, with the support of the pro-labor de Blasio administration, Wegmans is coming to the Brooklyn Navy Yard next year, even after the mayor gave his word he would only back a union shop.

So let’s see how Weg-Mart stacks up to Wal-Mart’s impressive record of screwing over working America:

  • Ruthless business practices? Check. Just like Wal-Mart, Wegmans’ arrival in inner cities has plunged locally owned small businesses across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic into bankruptcy.
  • Putting worker safety at risk for profits? Check. The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is set to fine Wegmans $188,000 for failing to address ongoing safety hazards that have resulted in worker injuries. Its not the first time OSHA has sounded the alarm about unsafe practices at Wegmans – they also fined the company in 2007, 2010 and 2011.
  • Cutting benefits and shifting costs to taxpayers? Check. In 2013, Wegmans unceremoniously eliminated health care benefits for part-time workers, and recommended their employees seek Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Hostility to labor unions? Check. Wegmans has aggressively fought off worker representation in its stores.
  • False promises? Check. Wegmans has promised the Navy Yard location will create 450 jobs, but industry experts say the real number will be more like 100.

Some of Brooklyn’s affluent new arrivals might be willing to overlook worker exploitation in exchange for a few artisanal cheeses, but longtime Brooklynites have no interest in giving this gentrification-accelerator a free pass. Shamefully, the company had to resort to astroturfing local support from the Farragut Houses and other nearby NYCHA developments.

If our mayor is truly serious about fixing inequality, then he should revisit his decision to turn down the pro-union bidders that promised to create well-paying jobs with benefits.

And he should forfeit his right to complain when even more of the surrounding neighborhood’s affordable housing is lost. After all Mr. Mayor, “as you eat, so you shall sow.”


Bertha Lewis is the founder and president of The Black Institute.

Bertha Lewis