The debate over a potential Walmart in west Louisville is beginning to influence a city election.
In the Democratic primary election for the Metro Council Distirct 1 seat, attorney Jessica Green is challenging incumbent Attica Scott in a closely watched contest.
Though the proposed location for the development is not in their district, what to do with the old Philip Morris site has sparked a larger discussion about the entire West End’s lack of economic development and how to address unemployment.
It’s one that labor unions, neighborhood groups and church leaders openly disagree about, as the two candidates make their pitch to voters.
Asked about the negotiations, Green said though nothing is confirmed regarding the abandoned site she believes the community is in need of jobs and better retail options.
“Our people here have been begging and crying for economic development for years. I support the work of unions, but I also support the average working man and people here are crying out for jobs,” she says. “And so what I’ve seen in other cities is Walmart is an anchor store that’s able to pull other businesses into the area.”
Walmart critics says the company’s low wages and other practices actually keep communities poor and they point to a recent federal ruling as just one of the many reasons residents should be skeptical.
From The Nation:
The (National Labor Relations Board) will prosecute Walmart’s illegal firings and disciplinary actions involving more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June as part of a growing movement of company employees. The ruling is likely to accelerate the burgeoning protest movement among Walmart employees, upset with low pay, stingy benefits, arbitrary work schedules and part-time jobs.
Scott took jabs at a potential Walmart for many of those reasons, and she joined labor groups at the old Philip Morris plant earlier this month to outline those objections.
Among their list of demands for Walmart or any other retailer would be paying employees a prevailing wage, allowing individuals to unionize and hiring workers from the surrounding neighborhood.
Scott says she isn’t opposing jobs coming to the area but will continue to speak up for workers in her district. The councilwoman also doubts this issue will be a deciding factor in the primary.
“Eighteenth Street and Broadway is not in District 1,” she says. “We actually do have a Walmart that is in District 1, and I’ve received several complaints from employees at that Walmart about the working conditions. There are a number of other issues in District 1 that need to be addressed and that’s what I will be focusing on in this campaign.”
Those who favor bringing a big box retailer to the corner of 18th Street and Broadway argue Scott is at the very least being premature in criticizing the retail giant’s labor practices. Neither the city or developers have confirmed Walmart is the retailer in question, many point out.
“You protest on the front end, who wants to come into that relationship,” said radio personality DeVone Holt, who favors the development.
“I see public officials who represent west Louisville out on picket lines, picketing against development in their own communities that their own constituents would benefit from. To me, I just think that is—treason. And my hope is we vote and change our leadership in this community.”
There are at least a dozen Walmart stores in the city, but none in west Louisville neighborhoods. Many who favor the retail giant say it will help lower overpriced goods and is a more convenient location for West End residents who must drive to other parts of the city for similar retail options.
Labor advocates, however, say besides its poor labor record Walmart doesn’t guarantee economic prosperity will follow and this issue is being unnecessarily politicized.
“I am honestly disheartened we’ve had so many perceived leaders in west Louisville come out and viciously attack individuals and organizations as opposed to really addressing the issue at hand,” says Bonafacio Aleman, executive director of Kentucky Jobs With Justice.
“A lot of people are tying it to this District 1 race, which is sad because this is far from District 1. There is a Walmart in District 1 and if you look right across the street there is a strip mall, which is about half empty. This is what happens when a Walmart comes in.”
For the long-term unemployed crawling out of the recession that might not be a convincing argument.
The city unemployment rate sits at about 7 percent, according to the latest Kentucky Education and Workforce Cabinet release. But state officials estimate that number could be significantly higher in the California neighborhood where the development site is located.
According to a U.S. Census survey, from 2008 to 2012 that area had an unemployment rate two and a half times higher compared to the rest of the city. In terms of median household income, California neighborhood residents earned about $16,036 annually compared to a $46,701 income average for the rest of the city over the same five year period.
“I am at least willing to and I want to listen and to learn more about whether Walmart is interested in actually coming,” she says. “And I think that it’s important that if someone is staunchly against the idea of Walmart coming then let’s say we have this definitive plan B on the table. We don’t deserve to just have to look at concrete. Our people deserve more here and that’s what I’m fighting for.”