by Jonathan Tasini
First Published in Tom Paine.com
What country has $245 billion in revenues, a population of 1.4 million, is one of the worst abusers of workers' rights and is committed to ruining the economy of the United States? Don't think too hard because this is a trick question -- I'm not really describing a country but the economic power and behavior of Wal-Mart.
What made me think of Wal-Mart was the strike by 70,000 grocery clerks in Southern California, now in its second week. From San Luis Obispo in central California all the way down to San Diego, the three largest California supermarket chains -- Ralphs, Vons and Albertson—locked out the clerks after demanding wage freezes, cuts in health care and a lower starting pay for new hires. The supermarket chains cite Wal-Mart's five-year plan to open 40 super-centers in California as the main reason they are seeking to effectively drive yet another group of workers out of the middle-class. I don't entirely buy the supermarkets' line -- companies are forever citing some economic external threat to justify battering workers, while leaving corporate perks quite generous, thank you.
But, there is a point here -- Wal-Mart is a blight on the country. As an employer, it is virulently anti-union, relishes high-turnover as a tactic to keep workers from exercising their democratic rights on the job and it employs more than 70 people full-time to break union organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Board—no friend of workers—filed more than 40 complaints against Wal-Mart from 1998 to 2002, charging the company with illegally firing workers, intimidating union supporters and threatening workers that they would lose bonuses if they unionized.
It faces the largest sex discrimination case in history with perhaps 700,000 plaintiffs who could be owed billions of dollars. According to a recent article by Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times, Wal-Mart imported $12 billion of goods from China, accounting for a staggering one-tenth of American imports from that country. You can see the evidence in small ways -- the company's health plan will not cover child vaccinations.
It's a company that takes a chunk out of people, not once but twice in a vicious economic cycle. Workers shop at Wal-Mart for obvious reasons -- low prices. Those low prices encourage the trade of goods from countries where workers labor in slave-like conditions (i.e., Wal-Mart keeps buying up more cheap goods). But the low prices also drag down wages in the United States because, as the Southern California grocery strike shows, companies jump onto the bandwagon and demand that workers agree to wage and benefit cuts for real or fictitious competitive pressures.
So, yes, some of our shopping habits end up cutting our own economic throats. But, we should not blame people who shop at Wal-Mart anymore than we should blame workers who work for a company that pollutes the environment. Workers flock to Wal-Mart because they are squeezed every day to stretch a meager paycheck.
But, the point of this rant is not just to flail away at Wal-Mart. It is to say it doesn't have to be that way. As David Morris, a creative thinker on the economy and society (and vice-president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance), points out, people wear different hats in society: wage earners, consumers, citizens and taxpayers. "The hat we need to wear when it comes to Wal-Mart is our citizen hat," he says. "Wal-Mart is as anti-union as any nation around the world but we allow Wal-Mart to set-up around the country and force other employers to cut wages. We should establish rules that do not allow Wal-Mart to compete like that."
Whoa. Rules against union-busting? Rules against firing workers, suppressing wages and widespread discrimination, all passed into law for the common good? Indeed, we have, as a nation, passed trade laws that set some labor standards by which other nations must abide in order to trade with the United States (that those labor standards are often not enforced and are inadequate is another story). Why should the same standards of respect for the right to organize unions that we demand of China not hold true for corporations doing business in the United States?
Finally, there is a powerful alliance to be made here. Labor unions, for obvious reasons, want to halt Wal-Mart's appalling persecution of its workers. Environmentalists are alarmed at Wal-Mart's role in quickening the pace of suburban sprawl. Small businesses are a natural ally because they feel the heavy Wal-Mart boot crashing down on their necks, driving them into bankruptcy throughout the nation. That coalition work has already begun. It should thrive and grow.