Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
“You shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart. Their employees make low wages and the company doesn’t provide health insurance for them.”
My mother spoke as I continued to look for an available parking space in the sea of cars that is a Wal-Mart parking lot.
She continued: “And women are paid less for doing the same job as their male counterparts.”
My hunt for a place to park went on. I could see the store about a mile back in the rear view mirror. It was 1pm on a Saturday. It seemed as if, pardon the pun, everybody and their mother was at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart is probably the most powerful company in U.S. history. Its low prices keep people coming back. If you follow the trail of low prices in America, though, they will lead you to low wages in China. This is where American jobs have gone.
By squeezing its suppliers for impossibly low prices, Wal-Mart has forced many of them to move their manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries.
“Wal-Mart gets its economic power because it is a gateway to the U.S. consumer. Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the United States. It’s the largest employer in the United States. The demand for Wal-Mart stores is what provides China and other countries in Asia with their access to the most powerful capitalist economy in the world. So Wal-Mart is providing a gateway into the American economy for overseas suppliers in China and elsewhere, and it’s doing it on a scale that is unprecedented. No company has had the kind of economic power that Wal-Mart does, to be able to source products from around the world. … Wal-Mart is able to transfer whole U.S. industries to overseas economies.” Duke University sociology professor Gary Gereffi told the PBS program Frontline as part of a special “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” 
The Wal-Mart way of the lowest prices has led to lower wages and job loss here in the United States.
Wal-Mart fights to keep wages and benefits low by battling workers’ attempts to form unions. The company has closed stores rather than negotiate with workers who want to organize themselves to collectively bargain with the retailing giant.
The remote Quebec outpost of Jonquière is a town of 60,000. Businessweek reported in February of 2006:
“A media capital Jonquière is not. And yet Wal-Mart’s abandonment of this north Quebec outpost in the spring of 2005 made news from Tokyo to São Paulo as an object lesson in the lengths to which America’s largest company will go to throttle the threat of unionization. Wal-Mart closed its store here a few months after it was certified by the Quebec government as the only unionized Wal-Mart in North America… Wal-Mart entered Canada by buying 122 discount department stores from the Canadian subsidiary of Woolco in 1994. (Wal-Mart passed on 22 other Woolco stores, including all 10 of its unionized outlets.)”
The Bentonville, Arkansas giant touts its computerization and harnessing of the new world order of just-in-time delivery and the web as the reasons for its success. There are two darker ones, though. The first is its epidemic disregard of United States labor laws. The 2008 Minnesota Law Review notes:
“Pioneering technological and organizational innovations account for a portion of Wal-Mart’s advantage, but the nation’s largest private employer has also been hostile to labor regulations. It has often violated the phalanx of laws, administrative rulings, and enforcement mechanisms that constitute the governmental regulation of work and labor established in the United States during the decades of social reform that stretched from the Progressive Era, through the New Deal, and on into the 1960s and early 1970s. For nearly two decades Wal-Mart has faced a stream of litigation charging that company policies violate and distort state and federal laws covering overtime pay, workers’ compensation, the minimum wage, fair employment practices, and various health and safety regulations.” 
Wal-Mart has changed the balance of power in the world of business not through buying power and better technology, but by forcing jobs overseas which makes them the vital link between the vast majority of American consumers’ needs for finished goods and the supply chain that delivers them.
“The question of who has power has actually shifted dramatically in the last 30, 40 years. It used to be that manufacturers — big, multinational manufacturers — had the most power, companies like General Motors and General Electric. Today, global retailers actually have become the most powerful companies in the global economy because they have the ability to shape global supply chains, global sourcing networks, and make decisions about where products are made around the world, at what price and how fast things have to be moved. And that kind of power is dramatically new, and we’ve just seen that emerging in the last 15 years or so,” said Gereffi. 
Sam Walton’s philosophy of buying cheap, selling for less than the other guy, and making a profit on high volume and fast turn over have forced many workers to rely on public aid because they cannot afford both health insurance and food for their families.
“‘Wal-Mart’s health insurance was awful!’” Susan Mediger-Paul, a Wal-Mart accountant told Alternet in 2005. “Mediger-Paul opted out of the company health plan, she says, to pay into the state healthcare system. ‘I had two preemies and they both had asthma–there was no way I would have made it on Wal-Mart’s insurance.’ With cheap premiums but large deductibles and gaps in care, she says the Wal-Mart insurance wouldn’t even have covered her kids’ vaccinations.”
That means that many Wal-Mart employees end up on public assistance. Democrats in the U.S. Congress and in more than 23 states sponsored so-called “Wal-Mart Bills” to force employers to either contribute meaningfully to their employees’ health care plans, or compensate the state plans for their failure to provide adequate coverage that meets the letter of the labor law.
Wal-Mart has so pacified shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost that Americans are only starting to realize ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Steve Dobbins, President of thread maker Carolina Mills told FastCompany in December of 2007:
“We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.” 
You can’t buy anything if you’re not employed. There are certainly other factors contributing to the historic level of unemployment, but it is clear that Walmart is like consumer rat poison. As a country we have gorged ourselves on cheap shopping. Now we’re slowly starving to death with joblessness in a declining America.