Anti-Wal-Mart Astroturf

Today’s WSJ has an interesting and eye-opening article on corporate-funded opposition to proposed Wal-Mart stores disguised as local community activism.  When I saw local busybodies try to stop the opening of a Wal-Mart in Cleveland — a Wal-Mart that did not receive any local subsidies nor require the use of eminent domain — I realized that union groups backed the effort.  What I was not aware of at the time was that grocery stores and large supermarket chains have become substantial funders of anti-Wal-Mart activism.

The article focuses on the activities of the Saint Consulting Group and its founder, P. Michael Saint, and their astroturf efforts  on behalf of SuperValue, Giant and other supermarket chains.

For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees. They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say.

They hire lawyers and traffic experts to help derail the project or stall it as long as possible, in hopes that the developer will pull the plug or Wal-Mart will find another location.

“Usually, clients in defense campaigns do not want their identities disclosed because it opens them up to adverse publicity and the potential for lawsuits,” Mr. Saint wrote in a book published by his firm.

Mr. Saint says he “encouraged” his employees not to use their real names in campaigns in order to protect the client’s identity and “to protect our employees, who have been followed, threatened and harassed by the opposition.”

Safeway, a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in recent years, according to a Saint project list and interviews with former employees. Former Saint employees say much of the work consisted of training Safeway’s unionized workers to fight land-use battles, including how to speak at public hearings. . . .

In Pennsylvania, Saint’s work roster in August 2007 listed 53 projects, almost all directed at stopping Wal-Mart on behalf of client Giant Food Stores, owned by Amsterdam-based supermarket company Ahold. Saint documents from 2007 say it had lost one battle in Pennsylvania, defeated 13 projects and delayed the remaining ones from four months to four years.

This sort of thing is nothing new.  Many corporations have been known to fund community activism against their competitors.  One of my favorite examples was when hazardous waste incinerator companies created and funded an offshoot of a local grass-roots environmental group to oppose waste-burning by cement kilns.  The plot was only discovered after the cement kilns noticed this little group was represented by high-priced attorneys — attorneys who also represented their incinerator competitors. This all serves as a healthy reminder that not all “grass-roots” activism is what it seems.