Wal-Mart's Image Rescue
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In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, among the statesmen touring the Houston Astrodome to boost victims' spirits were former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush--and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott.
This image didn't seem as odd as it might have. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, most of us were stunned by the poverty of government response at all levels--from the failure to rescue grandmothers stranded on their rooftops to the babies and diabetics languishing without food and water at designated emergency "shelters."
Thank goodness, then, for Wal-Mart, which immediately sent 1,900 truckloads of water and other emergency supplies to the afflicted. The company has also contributed $17 million to the hurricane relief effort, and more than $3 million in merchandise.
It's not surprising that Wal-Mart would be well equipped to respond quickly to a catastrophe. The company is revered for its efficient and highly centralized logistics, which have sometimes allowed it to capitalize on natural disasters. Learning from its database that during hurricanes people eat more strawberry Pop-Tarts, Wal-Mart has in the past responded to dire weather predictions in Florida by making sure stores in that region were stocked accordingly.
To its credit, during Katrina the company operated on higher ground. But Wal-Mart's many vocal critics deserve some credit, too; by putting the company on the defensive about its social commitments, they may have pushed Wal-Mart to help many more Gulf Coast victims. A company capable of operating in such a coordinated, humane way should do so not just in a disaster but every day.
There is no reason Wal-Mart could not operate in an equally streamlined, well-organized manner to make sure that labor laws (on overtime, child labor, discrimination) are followed. There is no reason its impressive resources could not be marshaled to remedy the daily, ongoing disaster that so many of its workers face: low wages and inadequate healthcare.
According to the conservative wingnuts at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the superiority of Wal-Mart's Katrina response shows that the private sector is simply more effective than the government. Well, yes, oddly enough, when you starve a government by draining its resources and electing officials who don't believe in it, nothing seems to work.
Companies like Wal-Mart play a major role in that eviscerating process. Not only does Wal-Mart give more than two-thirds of its political contributions to anti-government Republicans, it weakens local infrastructure by draining public coffers.
According to the advocacy group Good Jobs First, Wal-Mart has received more than $1 billion in public subsidies just for building its stores (not counting the cost to state and local governments of picking up healthcare costs of Wal-Mart employees). And Sam Walton's heirs, through their family foundation, are lobbying vigorously for the abolition of the estate tax, which will almost certainly weaken the government's ability to respond to future Katrinas.
Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist. She is the author, most recently, of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights At Wal-Mart" (Basic).