Cheney Sings Wal-Mart's Praises

Last week Vice President Cheney traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, home of America's largest corporation, to sing huzzahs to the glory that is Wal-Mart and its key role in our economy. "The story of Wal-Mart exemplifies some of the very best qualities in our country -- hard work, the spirit of enterprise, fair dealing, and integrity," Cheney said. "The managers and associates at this great company are helping to drive our economy forward. You're making a vital contribution to the most prosperous economy in the world."

What is it that has Dick Cheney so enthusiastic about Wal-Mart? Perhaps it's their embrace of globalization, as more and more of Wal-Mart's products are produced by sweatshop labor in third world countries, in the endless quest for lower labor costs (founder Sam Walton's autobiography was called Made in America).

Perhaps what pleases Cheney is Wal-Mart's low wages: The average Wal-Mart employee earns a little over $8 per hour, a wage that puts one well below the poverty level for a family of four. At that level of income, the Wal-Mart employee would qualify for food stamps; if like most of her co-workers she can't afford the company's health insurance, she still qualifies for Medicaid, the federal government's health insurance program for poor Americans.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of Sam Walton's five heirs, who control Wal-Mart, are over $20 billion. Each.

Perhaps Cheney was also impressed by the company's record in employee relations. In a series of lawsuits, hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees have charged that the company promoted women at dramatically lower rates than men, deleted hours from employees' time sheets, forced them to work unpaid overtime, and in many cases locked employees in the store while forcing them to work for free.

This is our nation's largest private employer, where from their first day on the job employees are lectured in the evil of "time theft" (spending a second doing something besides work, like tying your shoes or going to the bathroom) and the evil of collective bargaining, where the mere mention of the word "union" will within hours bring the arrival of a union-busting strike team flown from corporate headquarters on a private jet.

Cheney no doubt stands in awe of Wal-Mart's reach. Because of its enormous size -- it is America's largest company, with 1.2 million employees and nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in sales last year -- Wal-Mart's practices affect not only the entire retail sector but the entire American economy, putting downward pressure on wages and benefits. When you add in the thousands of suppliers whose businesses depend on Wal-Mart -- and who are constantly pressured to reduce the price of their goods -- there are millions more employees whose wages and benefits are directly pushed down by Wal-Mart.

In some communities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, ordinary people and their local elected officials have begun to say no to Wal-Mart, heading off the shock wave of destroyed small business that emanates from the arrival of each new Wal-Mart. Such opposition is inevitably greeted with a well-funded public relations campaign, complete with television ads, now seen around the country, touting the glorious waterfall of happiness, security and opportunity that comes with each new Wal-Mart store. Not mentioned is how many employees will be driven to the arms of the government simply to feed and protect their families: According to a report by the Democratic staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee, a Wal-Mart store with 200 employees costs the taxpayers approximately $420,750 per year in social service costs, because wages and benefits for Wal-Mart employees are so meager.

It was fitting that Cheney came to hail the success of Wal-Mart, because there are few American institutions that so embody the Bush administration's vision of what the American economy should look like. Like Wal-Mart, the administration has done all it can to encourage the accumulation of great wealth in a few hands (and worked to make sure that wealth will not be subject to taxation), while the men and women who actually do the work receive obscenely low compensation. Like Wal-Mart, the administration has been unconcerned about the lack of health insurance in America, leaving people to fend for themselves in the private market (whose rates are ridiculously out of reach for Wal-Mart employees) or, more often, rely on costly emergency room care and federal poverty programs. Like Wal-Mart, the administration has waged unrelenting war on labor unions, lest ordinary people obtain a voice for fair treatment in the workplace and cut into corporate profits.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Henry Ford decided that he would pay his employees enough so that they would be able to afford the cars they built. Nearly a century later, those who work at the company that dominates the American retail market can look to government for some measure of help in getting by. But at the wages they're paid, they probably can't afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart.

Paul Waldman is editor-in-chief of Gadflyer.

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