There are dueling articles in the Journal and Times about Walmart’s renwed interest in New York. Not to brag, but both sound a lot like an item we wrote back in September, about how the world’s largest retailer and nation’s largest employer would use the same tactics that recently succeeded in Chicago to build its first box store in New York. Namely, split labor support between the construction and service unions, exploit the recession and high unemployment, and integrate itself into larger projects or as-of-right development.
Walmart’s effort to open its first stores in the city still are being fiercely resisted by unions that represent retail and grocery store workers, who protest the retailer’s wages and opposition to unions.
But the talks with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York indicate a divide-and-conquer strategy for labor by the world’s largest retailer, which has been ramping up a public and political push to clear the way for its entry into New York City. While the retailer might use union laborers to build new stores here, it could still use nonunion retail workers to staff them.
The renewed push by Walmart comes five years after the retailer tried to open stores in Queens and Staten Island but faced furious opposition from community leaders and elected officials. But the retailer and its supporters, and even its opponents, say that the dynamics have changed and that the city has become more receptive to so-called big-box stores, like Target and Ikea.
But perhaps the greatest difference is the economy. With the city’s unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, any project that promises jobs might find appeal.
“This is a time when the economy is bad and a lot of my constituents are looking for jobs,” said Darryl C. Towns, a state assemblyman whose Brooklyn district includes East New York, one area Walmart is considering. “We have to begin to think out of the box and look at some different opportunities.”
Three things helped Walmart succeed against opposition from labor unions and liberal alderman in the Second City. First, it argued it was creating desperately needed jobs (albeit ones of debatable quality or compensation), which means the downturn is probably the perfect time for its latest move. Second, the retailer hitched its store to a larger development on the outskirts of the city, which gave it the ability to claim it was creating not only jobs for the economically depressed Far South Side but also much needed affordable housing and services in a veritable food desert. This also gave the project the imprimatur of a developer with local political connections and clout. Third, and perhaps most crucially, Walmart pitted the construction unions, who were desperate to build the store, against the retail unions, who feared the impact it might have on its members and the city at large.
The question now is, how low will New York go?