Al Norman was in his element standing at a podium before a crowd of more than 200 cheering union stewards in the events center at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.
Norman has spent two decades in a personal quest to block Walmart Stores Inc. from opening new locations and long ago found an enthusiastic ally in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The giant retailer is well known for its opposition to unions and UFCW members who gathered at Twin River earlier this month applauded loudly when Norman, 66, delivered his familiar message one more time.
“Walmart hates when I say this,” he told the crowd. “Walmart is like a cheap piece of underwear, they keep creeping up on you.”
This month, Norman marked the 20th anniversary of his campaign against Walmart and other big-box retailers, which began in Greenfield. He purports to have helped prevent the development of more than 200 stores in towns across America, from Eureka, Calif., to Damariscotta, Maine, and most recently in Holyoke, though the company and others dispute many of those claims.
Norman’s message has been polished over the years to conjure an image of a giant, unethical company treating workers poorly and pushing local businesses out of their communities.
He repeated several catchphrases in recent interviews and his Rhode Island speech to the union. “The empire was built on exploitation,” Norman said of Walmart.
Another one of his favorite claims, that “the Walton family [who founded Walmart] owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America,” was borrowed from the Economic Policy Institute.
Despite his efforts, Walmart has opened about 3,000 stores in the last two decades and now operates 149 in New England. The world’s largest retailer said it tries to work constructively with critics and talk openly about issues facing communities, but that Norman has his own agenda and been unwilling to compromise.
“We found that quite often there are more areas of agreement than you’d expect and opportunities to find common ground,” said Bill Wertz, a Walmart spokesman. “Unfortunately over the years, Mr. Norman has seemed more interested in taking shots at us in the press than working collaboratively toward solutions.”
By profession, Norman has been the executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of nonprofit agencies focused on the elderly, for the last 27 years. The Greenfield resident is married with three grown daughters.
Norman said his Walmart crusade began unintentionally long ago, when he was encouraged by a local official to lead a campaign to stop the retailer from entering Greenfield in 1993.
Norman was indifferent toward the retailer at first, but his feelings changed as the successful campaign progressed and he learned more about Walmart’s practices, he said.
“Even in the beginning I realized there was something dramatically wrong with this company,” he said. “My goal was to make it one of the most reviled companies in America and I think we’ve been successful with that.”
The story attracted media attention, and soon Norman was thrust into the spotlight as the face of the anti-Walmart movement.
Within a few months he was advising other communities, developing telemarketing scripts and providing how-to instructions. He published his first of three books, “Slam-Dunking Walmart!” in 1999 and began to earn money from his passion, often charging fees to travel and give speeches to groups.
Norman touted the fact that he has been called “Walmart’s No. 1 Enemy” by Forbes and the “guru of the anti-Walmart movement” on “60 Minutes” through his website, sprawl-busters.com. He said he’s traveled the world — from Japan to Barbados — to offer assistance in big-box fights.
“I can safely say that I have helped stop more Walmarts than anyone on the planet,” said Norman.
Norman’s campaign has prompted strong reactions, especially in Greenfield. Some respect his efforts to prevent Walmart and other national retailers from moving into town, but others have become exasperated by the activist.
A developer introduced plans to build a new big-box store in the town several years ago.
Norman insisted that he has seen documents proving Walmart would occupy the space. The company denies any involvement in the project and has never confirmed any plans to move into the town.
The building was approved by the local planning board in 2011. But Norman soon appealed on behalf of seven residents with homes near the property and the project has been held up in litigation ever since.
“He’s not going to bend,” said Penny Ricketts, a community organizer in Greenfield who often opposes Norman. “The reason why I don’t ever give up and why the town is so upset is because it went through planning boards. Everything is legal and when it’s all said and done, he still takes it to court.”
Many residents believe a Walmart could serve as a commercial anchor to drive traffic to the city again and provide low prices and part-time jobs for residents.
Norman contends that a town of 17,000 doesn’t need a store of Walmart’s size and the company will trade good jobs at existing local businesses that go under for low-paying, nonunion positions.
“I think it’s courageous, what he’s been doing,” said Dan Clifford, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 in Springfield.
“He has a great deal of passion and fire in his belly. Anyone who’s been in the limelight is going to have his share of critics,” Clifford said.
Norman said he is unbothered by those naysayers who claim he has formed an obsession with Walmart.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being obsessed with fighting a company that is built on exploitation,” he said. “To me it’s offensive that a company would not treat its workers and community better.”