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Published: Monday, 6/18/2001

Labor fears about store induce city to delay vote

BY LISA A. ABRAHAM
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Pressure from labor unions prompted Toledo city council to delay voting on zone changes that some fear could result in a non-union store being built at the former Plaskon Products site on Glendale Avenue.

Council members are concerned the site will be used for a Wal-Mart, a chain that labor often targets because its stores aren't union.

Council has put off its vote because of lobbying from the Local 911 of the United Food and Commercials Workers, and has been talking to the developer seeking some assurances for the union.

In March, the Toledo plan commission approved zone changes from industrial to commercial for about 48 acres at 2829 Glendale. Council's zoning and planning committee OK'd the changes in April.

Council gave the changes a first reading May 1, but a second vote won't take place before the end of the month, members said.

Cedarwood Development, Inc., sought the zoning changes to build Toledo Commons, a commercial complex that is to include two anchor stores and five smaller stores. The company intends to clean up contaminated soil at the site, which has been vacant since Plaskon closed in 1990.

Councilman Rob Ludeman, whose district includes the site, said Local 911 began lobbying council after it heard Wal-Mart could be one of the anchors. The other is expected to be a home-improvement center. “They're very much opposed to Wal-Mart because they're nonunion stores, and they often use nonunion, out-of-town labor to build them,” he said.

While the company has not identified its prospective tenants, Cedarwood's development director, Kevin Woodman, does not deny Wal-Mart is in the running. Mr. Woodman, who has been a consultant for Wal-Mart, said he thinks the retailer is criticized unfairly.

“Anything you can say about Wal-Mart applies to Kmart and Target. But people like to create the dragon so they can slay it,” he said.

He said the union's concern is premature, because Cedarwood doesn't have a deal with any tenants. Mr. Woodman said he believes the unions should wait for the stores to be built before they begin trying to organize workers.

Mr. Ludeman said the union and developer have been talking, and Cedarwood has promised to use local trade unions to build the development.

Ted Iorio, attorney for Local 911, said he believes the union's concerns about Wal-Mart are “community concerns.”

“Putting aside the potential environmental issues, the 20/20 plan, and the traffic issues, we're always interested in what kind of an employer is going to come into that facility,” he said.

Toledo 20/20, the city's master plan, calls for that land to be used as residential, but environmental studies showed the land should not be used for housing.

“We're not against growth and more jobs. But let's bring in jobs that will come in that will be meaningful,” Mr. Iorio said.

Mr. Woodman disagreed. “The bottom line is, it's a brownfield site,” he said. “It's nonproductive. It's been sitting there a long time.

“The demographics for the area are very, very good. It's a good opportunity to bring tax revenue back to the property,” he said.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio said nothing is “officially in the pipeline,” but that doesn't mean the site isn't under consideration.

He called the union's lobbying effort an attempt to get government to do what it has been unable to do: organize Wal-Mart stores. No Wal-Mart stores are union shops, Mr. Bisio said.

“I think what you have here is the UFCW's frustration with its own dwindling numbers,” he said. “Time and again, our associates have rejected any type of third-party representation.”

Councilman Pete Gerken, who works for the United Auto Workers and is labor's voice on council, said he wants the developer to disclose its tenant, and he wants more information on the environmental cleanup.

He said bringing Wal-Mart to Toledo would be “the moral equivalent of opening a whorehouse.” Blasting the retailer for what he called its use of oppressed foreign labor to manufacture its goods, he said, “From a standard of good public policy, we don't need to invite a neighbor that exploits the underprivileged around the world.”

Mr. Bisio called Mr. Gerken's assertion insulting and hurtful toward the company and its workers. He said Wal-Mart does not own manufacturing plants and places orders with contractors in good faith.

Mr. Bisio said Wal-Mart asks its suppliers to sign an agreement pledging to abide by stringent human-rights standards, including no child, slave, or forced labor.

Mr. Gerken contends that Wal-Mart has a negative economic effect because the company can afford to undersell for years to eliminate its competition. He said 78 percent of all Wal-Mart stores opened are converted to super centers with grocery stores within two years. He believes the area is saturated with grocers.

Mr. Bisio said he could not confirm the statistic, but he acknowledged the super-center concept is Wal-Mart's primary growth area.

The Finkbeiner administration has voiced its concern about a grocery store at the site.

“The area is saturated with full-service grocery stores, and the addition of another will place significant stress on the existing and proposed operations,” said Deborah Younger, acting director of development for Toledo.

But she cautioned council against “presupposing” who tenants might be and urged members to pass the zone changes. She said the project would clean up a brownfield, create 350 jobs, and result in a construction investment of more than $10 million.

Mr. Ludeman said he thinks it is inappropriate to sell groceries at a formerly contaminated site.

Mr. Woodman said his company has the expertise to properly clean up the site. He said although city officials have voiced concern about a Wal-Mart super store because of the grocery component, they have told him they would not oppose a Kmart super center, which also sells groceries.



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