When Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told the New York Times earlier this week that he was finished trying to build stores in New York City, one of his aides was quick to point out that he was only referring to Manhattan, where ground-floor space rents for about $500 a square foot, and not the city's other four boroughs. But when I talked to Scott the next day, he assured me that he said what he meant. The whole joint. He also pointed out that he was only one vote on Wal-Mart's real estate committee and could be overruled. Nevertheless, New York's politicians and union leaders were beside themselves with glee at the Times pronouncement. "We don't miss them," said Edward Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor council. "We have great supermarkets... we don't need Wal-Mart."
I don't know where Ott shops. New York City has some of the worst grocery stores in the country, hands down. In the rest of America, they build supermarkets the size of convention centers, and fill them with every kind of soup Campbell's ever made and all of Heinz's 57 varieties. In the city, ours are the size of subway cars, filled with the same kind of really angry people trying to squeeze their carts past one another so they can buy 28 oz. of peanut butter for $6. Selection? Ha. We get chicken noodle and tomato soup, and two sizes of ketchup. Certainly there are the fancy food shops where you can buy one orange for $2 and get incredible cheese and real Italian salami imported from Genoa that costs $4.99 — for a quarter of a pound.
But Ott was hardly alone. There was also inane councilwoman Gale Brewer proclaiming victory over the terrible jobs Wal-Mart might bring to her Upper West Side district, so overrun with economic development that she can apparently turn companies away. Perhaps she's waiting for a Toyota plant. Brewer helps run a city where rookie cops earn $25,000 a year. On an hourly basis, that's barely above what Wal-Mart is paying in its Secaucus, N.J., store. Maybe the cops can get a second job to make ends meet, since they can't afford to live in the city they protect. The same city where sweatshops thrive in Chinatown, immigrant Mexican help has been grossly underpaid by immigrant Korean deli owners, and immigrant African deliverymen had been getting $1.25 per hour at unionized Manhattan supermarkets (relying on tips) until authorities finally stepped in. "Wal-Mart's values are not New York's values," proclaimed Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW. You got that right. Wal-Mart's regulations stipulate that every employee be paid for every minute worked. (Enforcement, obviously, is another issue.)
The unions have got their walled-city approach wrong. Here's the UFCW, which has been losing membership at a steady pace, turning down a historic opportunity. You can't organize stores that don't exist, Stu. Supermarkets have been pulling out of the city, not moving in, given the high costs and the competition from retail banks for the store space. And Wal-Mart has kicked the UFCW's ass all over the country — there's not a single union Wal-Mart store anywhere. Whatsa matter, Stu, you don't got game for those hicks from Arkansas? This is a union town. New York's cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, teachers, bus and subway employees are all organized. So are its actors, hotels, restaurants and construction workers. As well as the media, including the lefty Times and the righty Post, not to mention TIME, and all the television networks (including the anchors). The major exception is the Dean and Deluca liberals at the New Yorker. But who needs them when you've got the brickies? The unions should be welcoming Wal-Mart and then getting busy. Don't gloat. Organize.