"It's a small vocal, special interest group that follows me around, they have the same story. I would invite them to show us what their wages and benefits are, because ours stand up," said Spall. (AP Photo/File)

Unions question trustworthiness of Wal-Mart ahead of Bellevue opening

Controversy follows Wal-Mart wherever it goes. It's true in Bellevue where the nation's largest retailer is opening two new stores this year.

The outrage usually erupts in small town America, where Wal-Mart is accused driving mom and pop competitors out of business. But in Bellevue, the competition for Wal-Mart's new grocery store includes big names, such as Safeway and Fred Meyer. Those are union shops and union workers like Joe Solorio claim Wal-Mart's lower paying jobs and lesser benefits hurts him at the bargaining table.

"That's one of the main things that [company representatives] in bargaining say: 'Oh, well Wal-Mart doesn't pay their employees that, they don't give their employees health benefits.' But, Solorio said, "people fought for these benefits, they fought for our good pay."

Defending the company from union critics is nothing new for Wal-Mart's Jennifer Spall.

"It's a small vocal, special interest group that follows me around, they have the same story. I would invite them to show us what their wages and benefits are, because ours stand up," said Spall.

"Our average wage in Washington State is $12.67 per hour for a full-time hourly associate," Spall added, "which is well above minimum wage here in Washington, which is the highest in the country. We offer benefits to our full time and part-time associates and that includes health and dental."

When news got out that Wal-Mart was coming to Bellevue, the store commissioned a study which projected a $6 million annual benefit to the community.

"That's with the direct jobs, indirect jobs, everything we're doing, the tax revenues that stay in the city," argued Spall.

Critics published their own study by a UW statistician, claiming Wal-Mart's presence will not increase spending but will depress wages for other workers.

"There's not a consumer need, so when they come in they often displace those better paid jobs (that include) benefits, health care and retirement benefits, job security; replace those jobs with their lower paid jobs without those benefits," countered Tom Geiger, spokesman for the grocery workers union UFCW.

Geiger led a demonstration outside a downtown hotel where Spall was speaking to the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. She said Wal-Mart will revitalize two languishing Bellevue shopping centers, one in Lake Hills and the other in Factoria.

"The local business owners tells us that they're excited, they (the shopping centers) have been long dormant, between five and 10 years each, they're anxious to see the foot traffic come through," said Spall.

Wal-Mart is known for its giant Supercenters. Spall said these new stores are not that.

"Both of these are very small formats, they're unique to the Northwest. This is the first time we're going to see a Supercenter under 90 thousand square feet, the first time we're going to see a neighborhood market here, so it's a grocery store and I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised when they go in and see this.

Geiger doesn't hope to stop Wal-Mart in Bellevue. "What we are going to do is raise the question: Can Wal-Mart be trusted?"

Wal-Mart will find out if it's welcome in Bellevue when the Kelsey Creek neighborhood market opens in June.

Tim Haeck, KIRO Radio Reporter
Tim Haeck is a news reporter with KIRO Radio. While Tim is one of our go-to, no-nonsense reporters, he also has a sensationally dry sense of humor and it will surprise some to learn he is a weekend warrior.
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