Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Walmart in DC: Good, Bad, Indifferent?

Seems like there are mostly lovers or haters of Walmart with a few agnostics thrown in for good measure.

On the lover side is Mayor Vince Gray.   On November 22, he announced a deal with Walmart that "represents an unprecedented, citywide commitment from a retailer that is already poised to help create more than 1,800 permanent jobs in our city."   The mayor is touting as a major success the community benefit agreement—calling for filling jobs with DC residents, investing $21 million over the next seven years in local charities, and forming a Community Advisory Committee to broker retailer-community relations.

The hater side is somewhat more nuanced.   Some simply loathe the retailer, the emotion typically fueled by Walmart's less than worker-friendly business practices and impact on small business.   But there are others in this camp; these folks exercise extreme caution when talking about/working with Walmart.   Marina Streznewski, Executive Director of the DC Jobs Council, is an example of the extreme caution group.   She has invested significant time and energy in getting the most for the community out of Walmart and offers this assessment:

Walmart really did not commit to anything specific, such as paying a living wage, or guaranteeing a certain percentage of full-time jobs. And there is a big question as to whether this agreement is legally enforceable; the second-to-last paragraph seems to suggest it is not.

The second to the last paragraph?   "Any intentions or commitments contained in this document are subject and contingent upon business conditions that will continue to ensure a productive relationship with the city and its residents."

According to the DC Environmental Network (DCEN), the plan Mayor Gray presented was actually a document created by Walmart.   And the nonprofit environmental group takes the mayor to task for failing to "include any substantive environmental commitments beyond following laws already on the books."   Surely, this response is to be expected from an environmental group.   But there's substance behind the criticism.   DCEN and others saw the promise of Sustainable DC, a collaborative effort to make the District the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the country.   While it's true that there has been considerable public input so far in the initiative, it's ironic that the Walmart decision was made before the project ended.   (The kickoff for Sustainable DC working groups is November 29, a week after the Walmart announcement.)

Learn more about the environmental and other impacts of Walmart on the community at the DC Environmental Network's "Walmart & DC: How Walmart's Sustainability Plan is Not So Green" December 1 at Noon.   The event is free and open to the public.   More information is on the DCEN website.

As to the issue of whether Walmart will be good for the District, there is something to be said for new jobs going to DC residents.   I'm not naive enough to believe all the government hype, but I do believe that the public can and will try to get real benefits for the city and her residents.   My advice?   Attend the DCEN event even if the environment is not your main cause and participate in Sustainable DC.

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