A bill by State Sen. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, that makes it harder to open big box superstores in California is on the way today to Gov. Jerry Brown. The legislation most prominently affects Wal-Mart, which has long been opening such supercenters.
Vargas’ bill, SB 469, amends the Permit Streamlining Act to impose more restrictions on opening the superstores. The bill would require companies to file reports on how the stores would affect the local neighborhoods, including traffic and effects on small businesses.
For public consumption, Vargas claims the bill is merely intended to help communities evaluate the economic impact of the superstores. But the truth is that the bill is a Vargas payoff to unions, an important constituency for him, to thwart expansion of non-union Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, the unions have launched an unusually cynical disinformation campaign to preempt any attempt by Wal-Mart to repeal the law, if Brown signs it.
The bill replays on a statewide scale a debate that took place in the city of San Diego earlier this year. The San Diego City Council passed a similar measure, but rescinded it after Wal-Mart gathered enough signatures to force a public vote. Like the San Diego ordinance, the state bill targets proposed stores 90,000 square feet and larger that dedicate 10 percent of floor space to groceries.
But such a happy outcome is not guaranteed this time. The advertising disinformation campaign spreads phony fears that signing initiatives exposes voters to identity theft. These lies, from a front group calling itself Californians Against Identity Theft, have been condemned as deceptive by such groups as Common Cause and the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. And even staunch union supporters may have a hard time keeping a straight face explaining why they’re suddenly so concerned about identity theft.
The advertising campaign originally didn’t reveal the source of its funding. However, an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Watchdog group determined that the ad campaign was funded by union groups.
Will the voters fall for the union-funded disinformation campaign? Some undoubtedly will, although media coverage has exposed the campaign for what it is, for those paying attention. If the public recognizes that the union campaign is a stealth attempt to limit choice and raise food prices to preserve union grocery jobs, they’ll support an initiative to repeal the Vargas law, if Brown signs it.
Californians hard-pressed to make ends meet may not be sympathetic to what amounts to a regressive tax. And Brown himself may decide that it’s not in his or the public’s interest to be the grocery unions’ pawn.
Keep in mind that this struggle is taking place as supermarket unions in Southern California have authorized a potential strike. The Vargas anti-choice bill and the union disinformation campaign are not a coincidence.
The unions recognize that non-union grocers can undercut them on price, and Wal-Mart is the most formidable non-union competitor yet for the unionized supermarkets. And they fear that given free choice, consumers will defect to non-union alternatives instead of shopping at higher-priced unionized supermarkets, especially given their contentious labor relationships.
To put it in the starkest terms, the benefits that union workers are preparing to strike over will ultimately come from customers — in effect a stealth tax on the most essential commodities.
Since labor is not synonymous with unions, the great majority of workers who don’t belong to unions would be the losers.
BTW, non-union employees should consider that certain ardent union supporters hold them in contempt for working for non-union companies. Something to keep in mind when unions ask the non-union majority to honor their picket lines.
(And those ardent union supporters should remember that adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.)
Customers, again mainly non-union, have the choice of voting with their pocketbooks by shopping at lower-priced competitors, many of which such as Trader Joe’s, are non-union. But despite its delightful produce, Trader Joe’s is not a supermarket replacement. A Wal-Mart supercenter would be.
So what to do? Block the competition under the pretext of serving the public. A more cynical formula would be hard to find. But given California’s economic distress, this may be one of those times that the cynics who underestimate the intelligence of the public have overplayed their hand. That those leading the supermarket unions have lied so shamelessly signals their desperation as well as their lack of ethics. They fear that making an honest argument based on their true motives is a sure loser. So they make stuff up to generate FUD.
The many honest union supporters should disassociate themselves from the disinformation campaign.
The good news is that the converse is also true: For those who favor freedom of choice for consumers, making an honest argument is a sure winner.
(DISCLAIMER: This is my opinion, and not necessarily that of my employer, the North County Times.)