But nearly two years after deciding to build on a 60-acre lot near the Hollywood Park racetrack, Wal-Mart is nowhere near pouring concrete. Instead, the world's biggest company is at war with a determined opposition, led by organized labor.
Indeed, similar battles are breaking out across California, and both sides are digging in hard. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to move into the grocery business throughout the state by opening 40 Supercenters, each a 200,000-square-foot behemoth that combines a fully stocked food market with a discount mega-store — entirely staffed by non-union employees. The United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters are trying to thwart that effort, hoping to save relatively high-paying union jobs.
The unions have amassed a seven-figure war chest and are calling in political chits to fight Wal-Mart. The giant retailer is aggressively countering every move, and some analysts believe that Wal-Mart's share of grocery sales in the state could eventually reach 20%. The state's first Supercenter is set to open in March in La Quinta, near Palm Springs.
"If we have an advantage," said Robert S. McAdam, Wal-Mart's vice president for state and local government relations, "it's that we are offering what people want."
In fact, Wal-Mart has won allies by providing people of modest means a chance to stretch their dollars.
"We need to have retail outlets that are convenient and offer quality goods and services at low prices," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "I really think that there are potential economic benefits for this community with the addition of a Wal-Mart."
Yet the Supercenters also threaten the 250,000 members of the UFCW and Teamsters who work in the supermarket business in California.
For decades, the unions have been a major force in the state grocery industry and have negotiated generous labor contracts. Wal-Mart pays its grocery workers an estimated $10 less per hour in wages and benefits than do the big supermarkets nationwide — $19 versus $9. As California grocery chains brace for the competition, their workers face severe cutbacks in compensation.
"We're going to end up just like the Wal-Mart workers," said Rick Middleton, a Teamsters official in Carson who eagerly hands out copies of a paperback called "How Wal-Mart Is Destroying America." "If we don't as labor officials address this issue now, the future for our membership is dismal, very dismal."
The push for concessions has already started, prompting the longest supermarket strike in Southern California's history. About 70,000 grocery workers employed by Albertsons Inc., Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions have been walking the picket lines since Oct. 11, largely to protest proposed reductions in health benefits. The supermarkets say they need these cuts to hold their own against Wal-Mart, already the nation's largest grocer.
Rick Icaza, president of one of seven UFCW locals in Southern California, has taken issue with much of the supermarkets' rhetoric since the labor dispute began. But he doesn't doubt that Wal-Mart is the biggest threat ever posed to the grocery chains — and, in turn, his own members.
"The No. 1 enemy has still got to be Wal-Mart," he said.
The unions and their community allies have stopped Wal-Mart in some places and slowed it down in others. They have persuaded officials in at least a dozen cities and counties to adopt zoning laws to keep out Supercenters and stores like them.
Homeowner groups, backed by union money, sued to stop construction of two Supercenters in Bakersfield, arguing that the stores would drive local merchants out of business. Contra Costa County and Oakland also have passed measures that could block Supercenters.
In Los Angeles, several City Council members are drafting an ordinance to require an examination of how large-scale projects such as Supercenters would affect the community, including the possible loss of union jobs. As envisioned by supporters, the measure would allow the city to insist on higher wages as a condition of project approval.
"We want Wal-Mart to be able to help us with our economic development," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is co-sponsoring the measure. "We just want to be able to do it on our terms and not theirs."
Wal-Mart, however, can more than match its foes in resources and resolve.