The standard saying among retail analysts in the past month is that "this is a tough Christmas." Even though incomes are going up, retailing is off. Kmart has closed dozens of stores nationwide. HomeBase has gone out of the home improvement business (focusing on home furnishings instead) in order to duck direct competition with Lowe's and Home Depot. Two of the biggest movie theater chains have gone under, and most of the others are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Home Depot's third-quarter earnings were down, and its stock price dropped by more than half during the year 2000. Even Wal-Mart's business is off. So you might think that California's retail wars are on the wane. Think again. Engaged in cutthroat competition, the big boxes actually appear to be stepping up their efforts to saturate local markets throughout the state. Engaged in equally cutthroat competition, cities are still throwing out the welcome mat to try to lure the retailers. San Dimas recently committed $2.8 million to underwrite a 150,000-square-foot Lowe's store that will bring the city $400,000 annually in sales tax revenue. In other words, even as a probable recession approaches, California's dense thicket of affluent metropolitan suburbs remains a Mecca for retailers. And for most cities, the "big box" remains the Holy Grail. Not surprisingly, the push to kill big boxes is growing as well. In the last few months, Home Depot has gotten walloped twice in attempts to build a bigger store near a smaller, existing store. Ontario turned down the company's plan to replace its current Upland facility, and Ventura did the same thing (though a new store is being constructed less than five miles away in Oxnard). But if the recession does not slow the big boxes in 2001, then labor unions might. At the same time local neighborhood and community activists have stepped up their opposition to big boxes, unions have increased their commitment to the cause as well — especially if the big box in question is likely to sell groceries. Generally speaking, retail workers are not unionized. But grocery workers are represented by large and important unions, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers. As big-box discounters, especially Wal-Mart and Costco, move into the grocery business, UFCW is becoming a major force in opposing construction of new big-box stores. Nationwide, UFCW has targeted Wal-Mart in particular, characterizing it as a company that promotes poor manufacturing conditions in Third World nations and engages in predatory attacks on small retailers and small communities in the United States. It is no coincidence, of course, that Wal-Mart is moving quickly into the grocery business. Next year the company will build 80 "superstores" that sell groceries and 15 to 20 smaller "neighborhood market" grocery stores. In California, UFCW and other unions within the AFL-CIO are, increasingly, using all the political muscle they can muster to oppose construction of new Wal-Marts and Costcos. The most famous incident occurred in the fall of 1999, when a bid to prohibit local government from approving big boxes that sell groceries suddenly landed on Gov. Gray Davis's desk at the end of the legislative session. Wary of signing a bill that had not gone through regular hearing processes, the normally pro-union Davis vetoed it. The veto may have discouraged the unions from using the Sacramento "juice bill" approach in the future. But it has not discouraged them from moving into local jurisdictions to try to block grocery big boxes. Union-driven anti-big box ordinances are on the table in many liberal jurisdictions throughout the state. The City of Los Angeles has been considering an ordinance that is virtually identical to the vetoed state law. So has the college town of San Luis Obispo, which has been considering a Costco, and the union stronghold of Martinez, which has been reviewing a Wal-Mart. It's a predictable strategy: Failing to obtain a state law, the unions are now seeking local ordinances in liberal strongholds that are also "hot spots" for the issue, hoping that more mainstream cities will adopt such ordinances in the long run. The truth is, most land-use planning issues percolate through California in exactly this fashion. But is this really a land-use issue? Unions often line up with neighborhood and community activists in opposing big boxes because of their size, their impact on the community, and the possibility of their predatory attacks on small retailers. But the ordinances under consideration — like the bill that Gov. Davis vetoed in 1999 — have a very specific purpose related to the vested interests of unionized grocery workers. The ordinances are not designed to prohibit the construction of big boxes or even to encourage patronage of local stores. They are narrowly designed to use the land-use approval process to prohibit non-union companies from selling groceries. Under the proposed ordinances, a 150,000-square-foot store that does not sell groceries — that is, a conventional Wal-Mart — would be fine. An 80,000-square-foot store that sells mostly groceries — that is, a conventional Safeway or Ralph's — would be fine. Does anyone really believe that if Wal-Mart's workers were unionized, the United Food and Commercial Workers would care at all about the land use and community implications of big boxes? It's a typical impulse to use the land-use planning system to protect some social or economic value that is held dear by an entire community or even by one vested interest. But it's very difficult to put this impulse into practice without a wide array of weird side effects. Many of our state's most liberal municipalities — such as Santa Cruz and Davis — have had knock-down, drag-out battles over whether to allow retail chains into their communities. In the end, the chains have come in — for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to use California's land-use regulation system to differentiate among types of business ownership. And that's as it should be. It is an article of faith in land-use planning that you can control the building —you can regulate its size and shape and its relationship to other buildings — but you can't really dictate which businesses the building houses. When land-use restrictions are crafted to pursue a narrow agenda, the community at large usually suffers. For unions and neighborhood groups, it might make sense to try to unionize Wal-Mart employees or encourage communities to boycott big boxes that sell groceries. But seeking to cripple non-unionized companies by blocking them at the planning counter is an activity that's probably doomed to failure.