By Joe Anuta
City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) fought a lonely battle against a barrage of Walmart criticism in Manhattan last Thursday when the Council held its second hearing on the retail giant’s possible move into the five boroughs.
Walmart has been eyeing a site in Brooklyn, and has attempted to sway public opinion in its favor with an aggressive ad campaign in newspapers and on the radio.
But there was no need to convince Ulrich. The Queens Republican was the sole official in favor of the retailer opening a New York City store and served as a voice of opposition in the largely one-sided discussion.
“In the City Council, we do a fair and balanced hearing,” said Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton), chairman of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor. “I’m sorely disappointed that Walmart didn’t come.”
The nation’s largest retailer did issue a statement saying it declined to participate but also benefitted from the defense of Ulrich, whom Sanders allowed extra time to speak.
At one point in the hearing, Ulrich questioned four people who testified against the company and cited multiple court cases accusing the retailer of discriminating against women and exploiting employees.
Ulrich asked whether they believed the practices mentioned — locking employees in the store overnight and prohibiting organized labor — would continue in the city, which he characterized as home to the toughest labor laws in the country.
“I find it hard to believe that that would happen in New York City,” Ulrich said. “Walmart realizes that doing business in New York is different than doing business in Alabama or Arkansas.”
To support his point, he said Walmart had mentioned allowing union labor to construct future stores.
But Annette Bernhardt of the National Employment Law Project said enforcement of labor laws is lax in the city due to an overloaded city Department of Labor, so the laws while tough are not actually enforced.
“There are 150 inspectors for the millions of workers and half a million workplaces,” she said. “The only option is to file lawsuits.”
But Ulrich took issue with many of the lawsuits that were provided as evidence of Walmart’s employee discrimination and violations of labor laws, since the retailer often decided to settle out of court.
“A settlement is not an admission of guilt,” Ulrich said. “It is unfair to characterize a corporation as basically wholly unscrupulous just because they settled out of court.”
Adam Klein, a lawyer at ï»¿Outten and Golden in Manhattan, said Walmart had in fact lost several court cases.
Despite the retailer’s legal entanglements, Ulrich also asked why an employer that claims to pay $12 an hour is a bad thing.
“Walmart is coming to New York City and paying $12 an hour,” Ulrich said. “That’s higher than the living wage bill that my co-Council members are sponsoring.”
The panelists expressed skepticism that the company would make good on that promise and accused Walmart of hiring predominantly part-time workers for less pay.
“A job is a job. If they hire 1,000 people they would be taking 1,000 people off of the welfare list,” Ulrich said.
“If it is such a terrible company to work for, why do 1.4 million people work there?” he asked.
Sandra Carpenter, a former employee of Walmart in Massachusetts who testified against the company, replied, “They need jobs.”
After the hearing, Ulrich said he would like to see the retailer in the city, although he likes some spots more than others.
“I want Walmart anywhere in the five boroughs,” Ulrich said. “But I would gladly take them in my district.”
Ulrich also stressed that the location should be in a spot where it would not harm small business.
He cited other big box stores in Brooklyn that are removed from small commercial districts as examples.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.