By Errol T. Louis
Big Box Battle
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, recently threw in the towel and announced an end to its efforts to secure a site in Rego Park, Queens, that would have been the company’s first location in New York City. Ironically, what doomed Wal-Mart’s chances was a vote to block a completely different megastore, BJ’s Wholesale Club, from opening a location in the Bronx.
BJ’s was targeted by a collection of unions and community groups that believes the benefits of access to cheap goods is outweighed by the harm caused by companies that provide low salaries and scant benefits.
“We saw BJ’s, a company modeled after the Wal-Mart example, as a test case for developing a coalition to oppose the world’s largest – and nonunion – retailer,” said Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the anti-Wal-Mart groups.
Council members have only one real tool to block a big-box store: holding up zoning approvals on the grounds that a facility will cause or contribute to traffic or environmental problems. So politicians raise these issues even if the real reason for opposition has nothing to do with traffic or environmental concerns.
The Council’s Land Use Committee voted down the proposed BJ’s on the grounds that the store would bring extra traffic to the area. But the proposed site was under a cloverleaf that joins the Hutchinson River Parkway and the Cross Bronx, Bruckner and Throgs Neck expressways. It could almost certainly handle additional cars traveling to the store.
Democratic Councilwoman Madeline Provenzano of the Bronx, who wanted the BJ’s built in her district, explained this to her fellow Council members. “It’s the perfect location. There are no homes nearby, there’s no elementary schools, no churches, no playgrounds, no hospitals,” she said at the hearing. “All of this stuff is just a great big smoke screen because we all know that the bottom line is the union.”
To be more precise, the bottom line is BJ’s and Wal-Mart’s labor practices. Both companies work actively to keep unions out, and both have been sued for allegedly cheating workers out of overtime pay.
Under an agreement with the government, BJ’s recently paid $320,000 in back wages to 233 employees. Wal-Mart has been charged with underpaying more than 1 million female employees in what is the largest job-discrimination suit in American history.
These and other practices need to be aired fully before the next big-box store application arrives. That way, Council members can quit pretending to talk about traffic and smog and get to the real issue, workers’ rights.
Lieutenant Governor’s Race Begins
With Democrats hell-bent on trying to capture control of the state Senate, the stakes for the normally irrelevant job of lieutenant governor may actually be rising, thanks to a provision of New York’s Constitution that gives the lieutenant governor the seldom-used power to break tie votes in the Senate.
Several Democratic hopefuls, some of them first-time candidates with great promise, are jockeying for a shot at running on a ticket in 2006 with the party’s most likely picks for governor, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi.
Senate Republicans currently hold an eight-seat majority, and Democrats have vowed to use the 2006 and 2008 elections to try to win the four seats that would close the gap – meaning the next lieutenant governor could end up holding the vote that swings the house Democratic.
Political insiders know this full well, and the lieutenant governor buzz has already begun. Sis. Leecia Eve, who currently works in Washington as counsel to Sen. Hillary Clinton, has told friends she is forming a campaign committee.
Eve hails from a politically wired family: her father, Arthur Eve, served in the state Assembly for more than three decades, and a brother, Eric Eve, was the New York director of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Bea Gonzalez, president of the Syracuse Common Council (the equivalent of our City Council), is also having what she calls “very, very preliminary” conversations about running. As in Eve’s case, Gonzalez, a Latina from upstate, would bring ethnic and geographic balance to a Spitzer or Suozzi ticket.