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Law in the Labor Movement's Challenge to Wal-Mart: A Case Study of the Inglewood Site Fight

  • Author(s): Cummings, Scott L
  • et al.

This Article studies the role of law in the successful community-labor challenge to Wal-Mart’s first proposed Los Angeles-area Supercenter in the working-class city of Inglewood. It focuses on the use of legal and legislative challenges to mobilize opposition to Wal-Mart’s Inglewood initiative—a technique known as the “site fight” because of its focus on blocking Wal-Mart at a specific location. The aims of this Article are twofold. First, it seeks to understand the site fight in relation to broader shifts within the labor movement, which have driven some unions to promote pro-labor legal reform at the municipal government level. Part I therefore explores how labor leaders have responded to the limits of traditional unionism by pursuing an alternative model of labor activism that uses political opportunities available in the local development process to advocate policy reforms designed to increase union density. This local approach is built upon three pillars: (1) it targets non-exportable service industries tethered to local economies and thus offering strong opportunities for union organizing; (2) it relies on community-labor coalitions to exert political influence within the local development process; and (3) it leverages local opportunities for legal advocacy outside the traditional confines of labor law to promote development practices accountable to labor and community stakeholders. To illustrate the dynamics of local labor activism, Part II provides a detailed case study of the defining campaign of the anti-Wal-Mart movement—the Inglewood site fight—in which labor leaders allied with land use and environmental lawyers to oppose Supercenter plans on the ground that the negative community impacts outweighed consumer benefits. The second goal of this Article is to use the Inglewood site fight to engage the scholarly debate about the role of law in social change processes generally and the relationship between law and contemporary labor organizing specifically. Part III draws four central lessons from the Inglewood campaign. First, in contrast to portraits of lawyers derailing social movements by pursuing rights in court at the cost of grassroots mobilization, the Inglewood case study provides an example of multi-level legal activism where lawyers worked in different institutional venues to challenge Wal-Mart site proposals and develop policy reforms. Second, the Inglewood site fight highlights a flexible advocacy model characterized by tactical pluralism, in which lawyers advanced a coordinated labor campaign using traditional litigation alongside nontraditional skills such as drafting legislation and conducting public relations. Third, the case study reveals the sophisticated ways in which labor client groups operate as consumers of legal services, assembling lawyer teams that contribute networked expertise in such areas as land use, environmental, and election law to advance labor organizing objectives. Finally, the case study provides an interesting perspective on the problem of multi-tiered accountability that arises in the context of low-income community representation, where lawyers must navigate complex relationships with multi-organizational coalitions that, in turn, struggle to represent competing conceptions of community.

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