Rohnert Park: The Walmart Friendly City

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Walmart has apparently taken its worker's rights cues from some of the more creative expressions of American capitalism
  • Walmart has apparently taken its worker's rights cues from some of the more creative expressions of American capitalism

It did not go well for protestors and others intent on stopping a proposed Walmart expansion in Rohnert Park. A Tuesday night meeting at Rohnert Park City Hall found the town’s cowed councilmembers voting 4-1 in favor of letting the supercenter plan go forward, according to an exhaustive report in the mid-week Press Democrat.

The vote ended, presumably, a five-year battle fought by opponents against the megalithic market, which has been trying to expand an already extant Walmart in town.

In the meantime, it went ahead and built another Walmart in Rohnert Park, a so-called “neighborhood market.”

Anti-Walmart agitator Rick Luttman sent an email overnight Wednesday, after the vote, that prompted one of those chuckling, “Tell us what you really think, Rick” moments.

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.”

I reached out to my old friend and colleague Liza Featherstone, a journalist, professor and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Walmart, for some scope-out thoughts on how Walmart might have managed to convince Rohnert Park officials to green-light the proposed expansion—despite a broad base of opposition to the proposal, which extended to numerous justice and workers’ rights groups around the area.

The corporation has gotten savvy over the years, Featherstone notes, given the relentless torrent of criticism directed at them for low wages, poor job security, and ongoing patterns of naked 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 protestors banging drums, and with, as the P-D reported, Walmart supporters wearing Walmart buttons and carrying signs that said how wonderful the company was. Yes, shopping at Walmart is definitely cheaper than blowing a hole in your paycheck at Whole Foods.

But despite the self-generated hype to the contrary, long-documented workers’ rights problems with Walmart haven’t been addressed by the company in any substantive way, says Featherstone. It has plowed forth with public relations campaigns, many featuring smiling brown workers cheerfully sporting the signature blue Walmart apron, gushing about the friendly corporate culture and blah blah blah.

And why should Walmart give a hoot about its wage-slavery: people still apply to work there, in droves, despite well-documented policies that aren’t exactly in the best interests of workers. The company, as has been noted elsewhere, provides new employees with applications for food stamps, since it knows workers will be left short at the end of the week.

Ain’t it ironic.

“It’s not just about the low hourly wages,” says Featherstone, “but the difficulty in just 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.”

The Press Democrat report was larded with gibberish from the Rohnert Park officials, who essentially argued that it’s not their business, necessarily, to decide which businesses are good for the city and which aren’t. Let them all come, and the market will decide.

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

But 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. If you find that there are people in the community who don’t really care or actually want it to be there, it might be because the community needs to figure out better ways for economic opportunity.”

Featherstone goes on to note that longstanding gender discrimination concerns at Walmart haven’t gone anywhere. “There are these additional insults to employees’ dignity, in the form of sex discrimination. The majority of workers are women, and they are paid less and promoted less often. That issue has never been resolved despite a class action suit, from the first decade of this century.”

In other words, the terrorists have won. Oh no you didn’t!

The P-D report was filled with handwringing jeremiads from town leaders extolling the virtue of the Blessed and Irreproachable Free Market. It wasn’t their job to decide whether another Walmart in the town would drive out other businesses, such as Food Maxx, that provide the same service but without the odious corporate profile and well-documented history of screwing its workers at any and every turn. Vive Le Costco!

At least the proponents of expansion kept it civil. Give them that. One thoughtful Walmart supporter waxed downright philosophical in the Press Democrat when he considered the substance of opponents’ arguments against the expansion. He called them a bunch of “sniveling, crying, mental midgets.”

That person was not Ted Nugent, but it might as well have been. 

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