Walmart Defeated in Michigan

by Sam Stark

Walmart_2_croppedThe people were united and Walmart was defeated.

That’s how the story went Jan. 28 when THE corporate poster child for the low-wage road to higher profits ran smack into an organized movement of community residents as the company sought a rezoning of property at 12 Mile and Southfield Roads [Southfield is just north of Eight Mile Road, which is the dividing line between Detroit and the northern suburbs.]

A rezoning by the Southfield City Council would have allowed Walmart to build a 130,124 square foot superstore where a closed Catholic church, St. Bede, has stood for five years.

The nation’s largest private employer was stopped dead in its tracks when the council voted 5-1-1 vote after a five-hour long public hearing attended by an overflow crowd of 270 Southfield and Lathrup Village residents. Out of the 79 residents who stepped up to the microphone, 73 spoke out against the rezoning.

The “No Walmart” campaign began as a grassroots movement after a Jan. 14 City Council meeting drew so much community opposition to the rezoning that Council President Ken Siver called for a special one-item agenda hearing in two weeks to allow every resident the opportunity to speak “even if we stay here all night,” he said.

Four long-established homeowner associations organized house meetings with less than one week remaining before the hearing. Linked by cell phone, the separate groups banded together with assistance provided by Metro Detroit AFL-CIO organizer, Ken Whittaker. A combined strategy meeting took place two days later at Southfield’s Peace Lutheran Church.

While no love was lost for an immoral corporation that pays workers so low many are forced to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, the residents decided on a strategy that zeroed in on planning-related issues — traffic, intensity and density – rather than Walmart’s business practices.

“If Walmart can make a case that they are being targeted for their behavior and not for these zoning issues, we could give them legal grounds for suing the City and winning their rezoning,” explained meeting chairperson, Stephanie English.

The community also adopted rules of decorum against disruptions of any kind, with expressions of approval shown by the universal deaf symbol for applause – arms raised with wiggling fingers pointing up — a la Occupy Wall Street.

Reflecting Southfield and Lathrup Village’s racial, ethnic and economic diversity, including union electrical workers, UAW retirees, teachers, other professionals and small business owners, the committee mobilized quickly, effectively using person-to-person and social media techniques.

Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice supported these efforts by calling on its 1,000 e-mail and 410 Facebook activists, urging them to telephone and send messages to all council members and the mayor.

At one point during the hearing, Siver noted that this was one of the largest turnouts for a rezoning hearing he had ever seen. He then held up a folder full of emails he had received that day as proof of widespread opposition to Walmart’s presence in Southfield.

Afterward, Siver and Mayor Brenda Lawrence invited residents to work with the City to help develop an alternative plan for the 12 Mile/Southfield property.

Sam Stark is an activist with Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice

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