Walmart Über Alles

Rohnert Park City Council votes to bring Supercenter in

It did not go well for protesters intent on stopping a proposed Walmart expansion in Rohnert Park last week. A Jan. 13 meeting at Rohnert Park City Hall found the town’s councilmembers voting 4–1 in favor of letting a supercenter plan go forward.

Anti-Walmart agitator Rick Luttman described the development as “outrageous and disgraceful. No other city in Sonoma County would have done something like this. They’re all a bunch of wimps.

“The worst part,” he adds, “is they clearly don’t believe in democracy. The opinions expressed by citizens last night was overwhelmingly opposed to Walmart.”

Rohnert Park officials argued that it’s not their concern to decide which businesses are good for the city and which aren’t.

Debriefer reached out to Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Walmart, for some thoughts on how Walmart might have managed to convince Rohnert Park officials to green-light the proposed expansion, despite a broad base of opposition.

The corporation has grown savvy, Featherstone notes, given the torrent of criticism directed at them for low wages, poor job security and ongoing patterns of gender discrimination.

“The company has gotten really good at telling a different story,” she says. “They’ve had so much practice over the years.”

And indeed, the Tuesday vote was met with protesters banging drums and, as the Press Democrat reported, supporters wearing Walmart buttons and carrying signs that said how wonderful the company is.

But workers’ rights problems with Walmart haven’t been addressed by the company in any substantive way, says Featherstone. It has plowed forth with cheery public relations campaigns, many featuring smiling workers sporting the signature blue Walmart apron, gushing about the friendly corporate culture.

“It’s not just about the low hourly wages,” says Featherstone, “but the difficulty in getting enough hours, and reliably just being on the schedule, which is another huge challenge for someone trying to make ends meet. And, on top of that, the health insurance is terrible, and it’s hard to get it because it’s so hard to get the necessary hours to qualify for it.”

As Featherstone notes, one of the tricks to a successful Walmart campaign is to promise jobs in an area that’s otherwise short on them. The jobless rate in Sonoma County, however, has plummeted over the past two years, from almost 7 percent in 2013 to below 5 percent as of late 2014.

The issue isn’t necessarily the quantity of available jobs, but the quality. Featherstone notes that “any conservative, or just an observant person, would argue that people apply for these jobs. If there were better jobs in the community, obviously people wouldn’t be applying at Walmart, and that’s one thing that communities have to consider. Why would they want these low-paying jobs? The community probably needs to be providing other ways that people can make a living. If there is support, it’s probably because there are significant numbers of people who are not finding jobs,” she says.

Debriefer reached out to the four councilmembers who supported the plan but none of them got back to us in time for our deadline.—Tom Gogola

Sonoma County Library