- Small Towns and Big Business: Challenging Wal-Mart Superstores
The giant retailer Wal-Mart has invited intermittent public scrutiny for almost 20 years, initiated by the 1992 Dateline NBC report exposing how children in a [End Page 710] Bangladesh sweatshop were making garments for Wal-Mart's "Made in the USA" label. Four years later, Kathie Lee Gifford's tearful apology over a similar child labor scandal suggested growing concern with the ramifications of big-box retailing in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Fast-forward a decade to 2006, when the Chicago City Council passed a living wage ordinance designed to keep Wal-Mart from building a superstore in the city. While the ordinance was later overturned by Mayor Daley, it would have required any store larger than 90,000 square feet to pay its workers a minimum of $10 per hour, along with an additional $3 per hour in benefits. Such events imply that many Americans may accept superstores' race-to-the-bottom methods of global outsourcing as a regrettable, but unavoidable reality of the 21st century marketplace. Indeed, their best hope for resisting these goliaths may lie closer to home, where local planning boards and city councils have increasingly sought to exact labor-friendly regulations from stores seeking to build in their communities, or turned to the political process to deter construction entirely.
Stephen Halebsky's Small Towns, Big Business, helps to fill in the gaps in this history of superstore resistance, in which the futile efforts of the Chicago City Council (or similarly, a failed 2006 Maryland law designed to compel Wal-Mart to either spend more on its workers' health care or pay a penalty to the state's Medicaid coffers) attracted national attention. Instead, Halebsky demonstrates that superstores can be deterred through the local political process, and considers the story of Wal-Mart's relentless expansion through the eyes of small-town America. Through six detailed case studies — all from the 1990s in towns across Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Washington and Ohio — Halebsky argues that local social movements can successfully resist Wal-Mart when they produce evidence of widespread opposition to the proposed construction, and use the media effectively to frame the issue as one that deserves broad concern from the community. Additionally, localities were successful in deterring construction when superstore proponents made key blunders, and when local residents who supported the stores' construction did not organize effectively.
Some readers may tire of the extensive, detailed case studies, but the usefulness of Halebsky's approach lies in carefully documenting the key variables that shaped the outcome of each fight. Moreover, not all of the six case studies are success stories — in fact, in only two cases did opponents keep Wal-Mart out, two cases were complete failures, and the remaining two towns experienced only partial success. In those cases, the NIMBY-infused rhetoric of homeowners whose properties were affected by the proposed construction initially prevailed against the retailer, only to see a store built later at another, slightly less objectionable location. In these cases, Halebsky reasons that the discourse produced by local SMOs failed to include the broader community, and thus the narrower framing strategies of the activists proved an inadequate basis on which to build a larger, enduring opposition.
This is perhaps the most interesting contribution of Small Towns, Big Business: While the case studies ultimately describe the outcome of local zoning and land [End Page 711] use decisions, Halebsky emphasizes the dual importance of the local political opportunity structure and a democratic debate that addresses a broad conception of the public. Such controversies matter not just to those whose livelihoods may be affected by the construction of a Wal-Mart superstore, but to the larger community whose identity, rhythms of life and economic security will be altered in the process. SMOs that can successfully combine key aspects of democratic deliberation and local political opportunity can indeed prevail in these contests — an extraordinary feat considering the profound mismatch between small towns and superstores in terms of size, resources...