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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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“They're cheap and highly skilled, if the skill you want is service and patience and ability to deal with people,” Moreton told AlterNet. And they take pride in their skills—Wal-Mart spread not just a style of retail, but a style of work and a particular work ethic behind it, one that was deeply tied to Christianity. “In a service economy you really transform the wage relationship because people understand themselves to be working for the client, the customer who is a real person – one who never wanders into the Detroit auto factory,” Moreton continued.

As Wal-Mart spread and its workforce grew, and as American manufacturing declined, men found their way into those low-wage service jobs as well. “The real story in labor is not 'Oh wow, women get to be lawyers,' but that men get to be casualized clerks,” Moreton noted. And while recent revelations of massive, pervasive discrimination against women at the company showed that the men tended to make more money and get more promotions, their jobs were still paid far less than the unionized middle class jobs that we've lost.

Meanwhile, wherever Wal-Mart went, local businesses died. Stacy Mitchell at Other Words noted that in the years from 1992 to 2007, across the country, over 60,000 independent retailers were shuttered. “As communities lost their local retailers,” she further points out, “there was less demand for services like accounting and graphic design, less advertising revenue for local media outlets, and fewer accounts for local banks.”

But perhaps the biggest shift that Wal-Mart helped bring about was the shift from manufacturer to retailer as the central focus of the economy. Wal-Mart doesn't make anything. When Wal-Mart surpassed Exxon-Mobil to become the world's largest company, Moreton noted, it was the first service provider to do so.

Wal-Mart sits atop a supply chain that extends around the world, yet it owns nothing but the stores where it sells its products. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein, in an essay in the book Labor Rising, compares the supply chain to “the iron shackles subordinating slave to master.”

“Wal-Mart is … not simply a huge retailer, but increasingly a manufacturing giant in all but name. . . To make it all work, the supply firms and the discount retailers have to be functionally linked, even if they retain a separate legal and administrative existence,” Lichtenstein wrote. This allows Wal-Mart to deny that it has any responsibility for the conditions in the factories that produce its goods, even while demanding the ultra-low prices that force manufacturers to push wages ever lower. Vendors that sell to Wal-Mart, Lichtenstein noted, maintain offices in Bentonville, Arkansas, to be closer to the hub of Wal-Mart's operations.

And this happens in the U.S. as well as in China: in a recent report, the think tank Demos pointed out that a Wal-Mart spokesperson had blatantly admitted “one of our big objectives was to put the heat on American manufacturers to lower prices.”

As it pushes wages downward, of course, Wal-Mart has made the Walton family, the children and widow of founder Sam Walton, into some of the world's richest people. The six remaining family members, Demos pointed out, have a fortune equal to the combined wealth of the bottom 30 percent of the American population – 100 million people. And they spend that fortune, in part, influencing our politics, dropping $7.8 million on lobbying in 2011 alone. Trade policy has been a focus of that lobbying; Wal-Mart was a force behind the push for NAFTA in the '90s, behind pushes for corporate tax cuts and against paid sick days, and many more pro-corporate, anti-worker decisions that have shaped the conditions under which American workers labor today.