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Destroying Communities, Abusing Workers: What's (Still) The Matter With Wal-Mart

The company that has shaped the modern economy turned 50 this week, but is a growing wave of protest enough to start forcing Wal-Mart to change?

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“Chinatown is a historic neighborhood, it's culturally significant, and the majority of the businesses there are family-owned businesses,” Nguyen explained. “This was exactly the type of neighborhood that so many people had talked about being destroyed by Wal-Mart. People started coming out of the woodwork from Chinatown, saying 'We want to protect the character of this neighborhood.'”

LAANE and other groups that organized against Wal-Mart managed to get an interim control ordinance through the City Council that would have created a temporary stay against new development—but the day before that vote, permits that Wal-Mart needed to move forward were pushed through by the mayor, including one for early construction.

L.A.'s Chinatown might be a unique neighborhood, but the story is the same around the country: communities, particularly in urban areas, fighting to keep their towns free of the destruction that Wal-Mart leaves in its wake. Wal-Mart's business model depends on buying in bulk and selling for less, with its sheer size allowing it to set the prices it pays suppliers, and often with tax breaks from local communities that it gets by promising to create jobs. Those jobs, though, are low-wage, no-benefit, no-security jobs that often leave workers dependent on government benefits to survive.

If all that weren't enough, a bribery scandal hit Wal-Mart in April. A front-page New York Times story found that the company had been paying bribes—more than $24 million in bribes--to Mexican officials to make it easier to open new stores. Through the bribes, Wal-Mart became Mexico's largest private employer, with more than a thousand stores.

Wal-Mart's reputation took a hit as well in recent years with a massive class-action lawsuit, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, that alleged pervasive discrimination against the women that work at retail stores and in the company's executive offices. Although Wal-Mart won the case in the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled that it had not been properly certified as a class action suit, Liza Featherstone (author of a book on the case, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart ) noted that it could be a launching point for more consumer and worker activism against the company.

“Something I think is really powerful about the sex discrimination lawsuit is the extent to which people are disillusioned when they realize that what they meant by Christianity is not what Wal-Mart meant,” Featherstone told Mother Jones magazine. “Many of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are Christian women. They thought that being Christian meant treating people decently. So when Wal-Mart discriminated against them, didn’t give them promotions that they were promised, didn’t pay them enough to hire a babysitter for their kids, they were really disappointed.”

In the fifty years since Wal-Mart was born, America has shifted from a country of middle-class industrial workers to a nation of service workers; inequality is growing, the religious right has an outsized influence on politics, and a few big corporations have even more influence. To understand how we got here, we have to understand Wal-Mart.

Wal-Martism

“The economic vision we call neoliberalism, Thatcherism, Reaganomics, or free-market fundamentalism could also claim the title of Wal-Martism,” Bethany Moreton, historian and author of the book To Serve God and Wal-Mart , pointed out on the website Rorotoko. In other words: the decline of what is commonly called Fordism, a manufacturing economy where employers understand that their workers have to be able to afford their products, gave rise to another corporate ethos—that of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart arose in the South, Moreton pointed out, opening its signature big-box stores in places where there were few options for shopping – or none at all – providing cheap consumer goods to people who didn't have access to them. Wal-Mart prides itself on the fact that it improved the quality of life of those customers. And as it grew, it tapped into a workforce that also had not previously been exploited: middle-aged white women, often evangelical Christians, workers more likely to turn to God with a problem than to a labor union organizer.