A meeting at Make the Road NY, one of the organizations working with local business owners to oppose Wal-Mart in Brooklyn, where members rallied for fair labor practices and living wages. Photo by Aaron Short for BushwickBK
The Wal-Mart backlash is in full bloom — and the megaretail chain hasn’t even opened a store yet.
Bushwick’s small business owners are growing restless as the global retail giant has begun lining up support from unions and other businesses for a proposed retail store in East New York.
Encouraged by groups such as Make the Road NY, 30 business owners from Myrtle and Knickerbocker Avenues are organizing against Wal-Mart’s inclusion in the Related Industries-owned Gateway II mall complex.
Francisco Acosta, owner of #1 Stop Grocery, called the store his "lifeline."
"It helps provide for my entire family here and abroad," said Acosta. "I know that I will compete directly with Wal-Mart to sell many of the goods I currently stock. I can’t keep up with their low prices. In tough economic times, this might be what puts me over the edge."
And Maria de los Santos, owner of Mary’s Jeans and Mary’s Flowers, said that Wal-Mart does not share her values.
"As a small business owner, I invest in my neighborhood because this is where I am raising my family as well. What I make gets re-invested in Bushwick. What Wal-Mart makes in sales will never get put back into the neighborhood."
They have a good reason to be worried.
A 2009 study touted by Make the Road showed that over a period of two years after a Wal-Mart opened in Chicago, 25 percent of independently-owned businesses within a four-mile radius of the retail store closed.
Make the Road organizer Dan Coates doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.
"You can’t peg it on a recession," said Coates. "Stores that were more directly in competition with Wal-Mart were hit harder. The idea of Wal-Mart coming in — this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back."
But Wal-Mart is lining up their own union support from some construction-worker and building-trade unions in a glitzy PR battle with retail workers, according to City Hall News.
And many Bushwick residents BushwickBK interviewed support a Wal-Mart in Brooklyn saying they would buy appliances there, but would still shop on Knickerbocker to buy every day items and groceries.
But Make the Road’s Director Javier Valdes said that aggressively priced items like air conditioners lure customers toward spending all their money on everything else.
"It’s what they call door busters," said Valdes. "You end up buying everything there that you would have bought at Knickerbocker or Myrtle. At the end of the day it’s only 15 minutes from Bushwick to Gateway. You’re going to see more and more people going there."
And that’s why Make the Road is working hard to organize small businesses and educate its membership base about the effects of patronizing the store as well as the corporation’s labor practices.
"We’re not in the business of telling members where to work or not to work," said Valdes. "We’re trying to raise the living standards of all workers and if Wal-Mart comes in, workers will take a step back."