Last week WalMart staff joined three local chambers of commerce to hold a public meeting on the company’s proposed 1.2-million square-foot distribution center, to be located at the Mission Interchange of Highway 99. The Mission Interchange will join the highway to UC Merced, via the Campus Parkway, the southern leg of a beltway road around Merced that will convey traffic to the campus and the growth it is inducing north of the city.
The WalMart distribution center will bring about 1,000 trucks in and out of Merced per day.
The meeting host was the Merced Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, flanked by the two other local chambers. The hosting chamber’s representative informed the public that speakers would be allowed no more than two minutes to speak, otherwise security guards would escort them out of the meeting room.
After the tone of antagonism to the public was set, a WalMart representative wearing a black suit and a white T-shirt began the presentation. He explained that the two-minute rule was because the meeting room in the Merced Multi-Cultural Center was only rented until 9 p.m. (WalMart didn’t get rich by renting halls for public outreach until 10 p.m., presumably).
The T-shirt began by saying that the area was zoned industrial, in “University Industrial Park,” and was a good fit for WalMart. Since WalMart didn’t get to be the largest corporation in the world by wasting money on fancy power point presentations, the T-shirt presented his on a projector and screen primitive enough for the public school system.
“There’s a good deal of misinformation out there,” T-shirt began, promising to clarify everything. He began by explaining that the City of Merced had just put out requests for proposals for consultants to do the environmental impact report required for the project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
“We didn’t think the city should pay,” he said, so WalMart will be paying for the EIR.
One imagined WalMart’s view of who should pay for the EIR was probably shared by city staff and council members. Members of the Merced public familiar with EIRs and the consultants who write them are of the conviction – not challenged by anyone else familiar with the EIR/consultant process – that science for hire produces remarkable perversions of CEQA. The WalMart Distribution Center EIR for the Mission Ave. Interchange promises to be a tour de force of the environmental consultants’ art. We are aquiver with anticipation.
Several weeks ago, the federal government announced that the San Joaquin Valley is now the worst air pollution basin in the nation – worse than Los Angeles over a period of five years – although you cannot get a local Valley official to recognize it. It’s a tricky time for our pro-growth Valley politicians, because federal highway funds have been known to cease (in Atlanta, for example) when air quality becomes a genuine health and safety issue called “severe non-attainment.” So, Valley politicians, enthusiastic create the next San Fernando Valley, are very busy trying to gut CEQA as congressmen Pombo and Cardoza have been busy trying to gut the Endangered Species Act in Washington.
“We don’t understand CEQA in Bentonville,” the empty T-shirt explained. Of course, how could they? They don’t have any stores or other distribution centers anywhere else in California and have never, ever had to produce an EIR.
Zooming through his power point presentation, correcting public misapprehension of the project as he went, T-shirt closed by saying WalMart has nothing to hide and just wants to get “on the same page” with the public on information about the project. He expressed dismay about where people were getting their information, suggesting darkly perhaps some of it came from the Internet. He counseled the audience to verify all information they got from the Internet, presumably with WalMart, city officials, council members and environmental consultants. Nice little chats with these authorities are always more pleasant than following the paper trail, and a great deal less taxing on the mind.
A representative for a local responsible growth group noted there were five schools within a mile of the proposed distribution center. The company’s distribution centers are most typically located away from population centers, he said. Where will truckers park after they have finished their 8-hour shifts, he wondered.
WalMart knows there is an air pollution problem, T-shirt said, but WalMart is only a piece of the whole picture. The company will know how to mitigate for air pollution after the EIR is finished. He failed to deal with the issue of parked trucks, a major problem in Merced, a city with draconian anti-truck-parking ordinances.
A woman with family in New Mexico said WalMart promised good jobs for local workers where her family lived but imported workers instead. She asked if WalMart would guarantee it would hire Merced workers and the amount of the wages.
T-shirt was ready for that one, too, correcting her to say the New Mexico facility was a super center, not a distribution center.
But the woman was also ready: “If you lie about wages in a super center, why won’t you lie about wages in a distribution center,” she asked.
T-shirt replied that WalMart would import a management and training team but that after six months, they whould leave. The EIR will make these wages and jobs commitments, he said.
A young fellow, about 12 or 13 years old, told T-shirt he had asthma and wondered if WalMart would pay his medical bills for making his air quality worse.
T-shirt said WalMart could not agree to that, admitted the distribution center could have some impact to air quality, and reiterated that WalMart will not be choosing the environmental consultants. (WalMart will just pay them.)
A gentleman who said he frequently drives through the Midwest said people there blame WalMart for the decline in local businesses.
“That’s a fair question,” the empty T-shirt said. “We’ll have a philosophical difference of opinion,” he added, noting Merced’s vibrant downtown. Downtown business people one talks to, however, must be blind as bats not to see what T-shirt sees, as the area fills up with antique franchises. Even the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, co-sponsors of the event, recently moved its offices from downtown to north Merced, where strip malls are sprouting like weeds in the sun of UC Merced.
The description of the event could go on, but readers would soon become bored with the simple puppet show between The Corporation and The People. On the other hand, let us continue to give the full flavor of this moment.
Next came a man from Planada, an unincoporated community composed largely of Mexican farmworker immigrants. This local leader was somewhat disingenuous about his position in the community, announcing himself as a simple utility company employee when, actually, he was a prominent community leader who holds several appointed positions. He wanted 1 percent of his constituency to get jobs at the distribution center. “I want that center to help my people,” he said.
A neighbor of the proposed site told the T-shirt she didn’t believe either the local government (because a low-income housing project the government said would be for locals turned out to be for out-of-towners) or WalMart. What guarantee do we get from these job promises, she asked. What guarantee is there we will get only the newest, most environmentally advanced trucks? What written guarantees will we get from either WalMart or the City of Merced?
The empty T-shirt replied that all that would be handled in the EIR, adding that he himself, the T-shirt, didn’t make guarantees.
The neighbor replied that environmental review documents have exactly nothing to do with jobs and wages for local citizens. The crowd began to mutter darkly, a voice from the pro-WalMart faction told her to sit down and shut up and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce representative invoked the 2-minute rule again (and the implied security guards behind it).
The Empty T-Shirt replied after the muttering that the WalMart CEO had recently decreed that the company’s truck fleet would be green by 2007.
A local activist, also involved in trying to stop the proposed NASCAR race track on the other side of town (another boon to regional air quality), asked why Merced should welcome a corporation with a record for exploiting workers on overtime (off-the-clock work, proven in a $117-million class action award, denies meal breaks, is the object of a class action gender-discrimination suit, degrades the environment, and buys enormous quantities of goods from sweatshops in China.
“Why is this enhancing Merced?” he asked.
The empty T-shirt said those questions were philosophical. “Anyone can file a lawsuit,” he commented, adding that WalMart imported goods worth $18 billion from China but bought $137 billion worth of goods in the US. WalMart is a global company, he asserted. It sells US goods overseas. “We embrace the global economy,” he concluded.
A local teacher raised the issue of why the distribution center would be located within the city, when most are located in the middle of nowhere. T-shirt replied that the “University Industrial Zone” was zoned properly and the EIR will tell the full story. Another neighbor of the proposed distribution center noted there are three public schools within a mile of the project and a new subdivision within 500 feet of it. She also challenged WalMart representatives to describe how they would spend some portion of $12 million in Merced that they claimed WalMart had donated to worthy causes in California.
T-shirt’s fellow apologist, the WalMart Real Estate Department Suit, replied that at the very time the public was complaining about this project, WalMart was giving out two scholarships to high school graduates in Merced. He added that the company would be improving and expanding three roads near the distribution center site.
A member of the public with some experience in the trucking industry remarked that the new, “green” trucks WalMart claims it will be using by 2007 would be cycled into their fleet slowly, at a rate of 14 percent per year. He added that the distribution center would not be built if WalMart weren’t planning to build super centers throughout the Valley, including grocery stores, and that the grocery elements of those centers were gutting local economies. He also commented that the reason WalMart would be widening those nearby roads would be to provide space for idling trucks to wait all night in line for the docks.
T-shirt asserted that all WalMart trucks would be green by 2007 and the Real Estate Suit said there would be no food handled at this distribution center.
Why not, we wondered, since it’s located in the middle of one of the most prolific food-production and processing zones in the world.
A former City of Merced department director belligerently announced he was thankful to WalMart for coming to Merced and accused opponents of the project of being outsiders.
An opponent of the project said everyone speaking in opposition was from Merced. “The reason WalMart is under a microscope,” he said, “is because of a long history of exploitation of workers, including three lawsuits against you brought by your own employees.”
He added that for WalMart, full-time employment means 28 hours a week, not 40. Although the company touts its benefits, he asked what employees could afford these benefits.
T-shirt explained there would be three full-time shifts at the distribution center and that full-time employment meant a minimum of 34 hours, with 40 hours “expected.” Medical/dental benefits require only an $11/month payment, he said, while a union charges $30/month for medical/dental coverage and dues.
T-shirt left the issue of the size of the medical/dental co-payment in the WalMart plan unexplored, but claimed 60-percent of WalMart employees have medical insurance.
A member of public asked if WalMart would put in writing that it was not receiving state subsidies for locating its project in a state enterprise zone, in view of the fact Merced citizens were being asked for two tax increases.
“No, we won’t pay for your potholes!” she said. “We want high-paying jobs here and a decent quality of life!”
As T-shirt began to argue about the state enterprise zone, she said: “You should be honest!”
T-shirt continued talking about how WalMart would spend millions in fees and $400,000 for schools.
“We want it in writing,” the critic said.
At this point, an outside agitator from one of Atwater’s famed political donut shops arose to say that Merced County had the highest unemployment in the Central Valley. “The Lord is guiding WalMart to Merced! How are we going to get these empty houses filled without jobs?”
A neighbor of the project site told the panel he thought the fellow from Atwater would be a good WalMart greeter, adding that there is nothing on the CalTrans website indicating the Mission Ave. Interchange overpass would be completed by 2007, that the overpass could not be completed until Highway 99 is widened, and that there is no indication on the website of any plans for landscaping. Meanwhile, traffic at the intersections is already congested, nearby Highway 140 cannot refuse truck traffic, and he thought WalMart had agreed to repair one of the peripheral roads as a feeder route to 140.
T-shirt said WalMart could not speak for the state of California. A member of the audience thought is was likely WalMart had talked to the Merced Council of Area Governments, who does speak about regional traffic plans to CalTrans.
A Merced resident expressed issues with WalMart’s corporate culture. The state’s chambers of commerce and the governor having already shot down the last attempt to get a minimum wage hike in California, he wanted to know if WalMart had a policy about denying benefits to employees who join unions.
T-shirt replied that that was not WalMart’s practice. “We don’t currently have any unions in our stores,” he said, “but there is a lot of opportunity at WalMart.”
“Including for women and minorities?” the citizen asked.
“Yes,” T-shirt replied.
Another resident wanted to know if WalMart did background checks on job applicants and was told it did, on criminal records and drug use.
Earlier, T-shirt had said that part of WalMart’s plan to renovate its truck fleet involved using single tires to replace sets of double tires on its trailers. The resident wanted to know if this practice would cause more wear on the roads. T-shirt replied that would be discussed in the EIR.
A Merced city councilman supplied some facts: that the city’s enterprise zone expired in 2006 but the Mission Interchange project would not be completed by CalTrans by 2007.
Another resident noted that 34-hour weeks at $13.50 would not pay for any of the houses for sale in Merced. Her slogan was: “Let the hiree beware!”
A UC Merced faculty wife, leader of a group called the “Valley Hopefuls,” which she characterizes as “progressives,” and a group called “Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth (MARG),” asked WalMart for a binding contract on issues beyond the scope of the environmental impact report. She asked for a commitment to a certain percentage of profits to come back to the community and 500 of the 600 proposed jobs to go to local residents.
“We are on the same side,” T-shirt said. The location is zoned industrial; that is responsible growth, and the project will aid the parkway to UC Merced.
The faculty wife/organizer, who will leave Merced to return to Palo Alto this summer, curtsied and asked T-shirt if he would like to join MARG.
Some in the audience wondered at this point what the hopeful Valley "progressives," led by the UC faculty wife had expected would happen after UC Merced came to town. Perhaps "progressive," according to UC, means deaf, dumb, asthmatic and blind.
A resident of Planada, a Hispanic who said he was a fifth generation American citizen, said he liked this country “because it allows us to sue you.” He wanted WalMart to hire 100-percent of Planada, suggesting that surely local politicians could work out some kind of deal like that.
A sophomore from the high school near the proposed site said, “We don’t need a 1.2-million square-foot tumor.”
T-shirt again referred to the coming EIR.
The student asked if an EIR were really needed to show that the distribution center would cause a great deal of light, noise and air pollution and traffic congestion.
A local realtor commented that the project was a good one because, “We need something to get this economy going.” (And here we thought the real estate industry was going gangbusters.)
A UC Merced student complained that UC would be paying for part of the parkway and that WalMart should be paying some of it. T-shirt said WalMart would be contributing taxes.
How much, members of the audience wondered, if WalMart is not registering its trucks in California?
T-shirt concluded by saying that double-digit unemployment in Merced was a “huge benefit to WalMart.”