THE BLOG

Did Wal-Mart Dupe the L.A. Times?

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

Retailer Organizes "Customers" To Lobby For More Stores

Did Wal-Mart put one over on the L.A. Times?

On February 27th, the Los Angeles Times ran a 1,342 word story about a resident of the Florence-Firestone neighborhood near Watts, in Los Angeles, California, who is circulating a petition in support of a Wal-Mart superstore.

The piece focused on a 51 year old man named Eddie Caire, who is going door- to-door petitioning for a Wal-Mart in a city that thus far has not been friendly to the world's largest retailer. The story makes it appear that Eddie Caire woke up one day and decided to lobby for a Wal-Mart. It fails to mention Wal-Mart is spending money, in California and elsewhere, to create people like Eddie Caire.

Caire says that more than 3,000 people have signed his petition. The LA Times describes Caire as a former Marine, former union organizer, and small business man who cleans up after construction sites. The newspaper depicts Caire as a "civic activist of sorts" who "decided late last year" that a Wal-Mart supercenter in Florence "would amount to Florence's salvation." Caire reached this epiphany after realizing that there were few grocery stores in his neighborhood.

"The people who have the least are expected to pay the most," he told the LA Times. Caire insists his main motivation is jobs. "I'm not so foolish as to think that we wouldn't put some people out of business," he admitted to the newspaper. "But this is a no-brainer." That statement was challenged in the story by Los Angeles County's senior deputy for economic development.

The reporter for the LA Times said that "Wal-Mart itself, predictably, is quite pleased" with Caire's efforts. That's because Wal-Mart is spending big bucks in California trying to find people like Eddie Caire to carry its water. Wal-Mart has set up a "Customer Action Network" (go to: www.wal-martcan.com) designed to allow the company to work behind the screen of an 'astro-roots' group of 'customers' that the giant retailer gets to push for new stores.

The Wal-Mart CAN is based in Van Nuys, California, and is targeted to the California region. (There is also a CAN effort underway in New England). By setting up local residents to 'petition' for a store, Wal-Mart creates the impression that there is a groundswell of support for more superstores. Wal-Mart has been imitating grassroots organizing groups for years, but in the past year or so has paid its PR consultants to create a "Customer Action Network" to counter opponents on a city-by-city basis. The ruse sometimes works with the media.

It is not clear if the LA Times asked Caire if he was recruited by the Wal-Mart Customer Action Network--or even if he is being paid. Wal-Mart's CAN is a proactive way to fend off strong anti-Wal-Mart organizing---especially in California---which led to the company's defeat in Inglewood, and many other communities up and down the state. Wal-Mart promises that people who join their Customer Action Network will learn "how you can make a difference." The company says CAN "is a program to keep customers informed about government issues that affect Wal-Mart and its ability to provide good value for your shopping dollar."

Wal-Mart is orchestrating CAN activities 280 miles north of Los Angeles in the city of Patterson, California, where the retailer launched a website to attract people like Eddie Caire. When members join the CAN, they are asked to indicate if they are willing to write to newspapers, host a forum or organize an event, do surrogate speaking, contact elected officials, and attend city council functions. In short---to do exactly what Eddie Caire is doing for Wal-Mart in Los Angeles.

Eddie Caire is right about one thing: the Wal-Mart jobs issue is a "no brainer." There are few net new jobs when a superstore opens. There is a reason why cities from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to New York City have fought back to keep Wal-Mart out. Inviting Wal-Mart to your neighborhood is like inviting the cannibals to dinner. Yet the LA Times claims that Wal-Mart "will bring jobs and low prices" to Florence. Even Eddie Caire admits that Wal-Mart will put some people out of business. During the Ingleside, California battle, the 'voodoo economics' of Wal-Mart, and their exploitative relationship with their workers, were key issues that tipped the balance against the superstore.

Eddie Caire most likely has not read the 2003 Retail Forward study that shows 2 grocery stores will close for every Wal-Mart supercenter that opens. Caire no doubt missed the research by David Neumark, Professor of Economics at U. Cal in Irvine in 2005, which found that "total payrolls per person decline, by about 5% in the aggregate, implying that residents of local labor markets earn less following the opening of Wal-Mart stores." Neumark's research found that in the southern states in America, "Wal-Mart reduces retail employment, total employment, and total payrolls per person."

But Eddie Caire will also find out that land use decisions are not based on petitions. Caire said he was surprised that local merchants who compete with Wal-Mart would sign his petition---but the fact is, most businesses and residents will sign petitions for almost anything to make the petition-bearer go away, which is why petitions alone are a very blunt instrument when it comes to growth policy.

Membership in Wal-Mart's CAN is open to anyone. To join in California, call toll-free 1-800-630-9226, or email CAN at: www.wal-martcan.com/join.html. When the retailer emails you with instructions, pass the word on to your friends to do just the opposite of whatever CAN wants. The more Wal-Mart opponents who join CAN, the more useless it becomes as an organizing tool--including in Los Angeles.

And if Eddie Caire is not a formal member of Wal-Mart's Customer Action Network, he ought to join up soon. It's a no brainer.

Al Norman is the founder of www.sprawl-busters.com, and has been called a 'one-man anti-Wal-Mart cottage industry" by the Wall Street Journal.