"I don't know if they are trying to find a way into the city," black Chicago West Side pastor Joseph Kyles told the Chicago Tribune three weeks ago, "or if they are genuinely wanting to take the lead in dealing with the city's social ills" (Dan Mihalopolous, "Nobody Neutral on Wal-Mart Proposals," Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2004).
The Weakest Link in Wal-Mart's Bid "to Expand Its Empire"
I hope Reverend Kyles was joking.
The "they" to which he
referred was the rapacious low-wage and anti-union mega-retailer Wal-Mart,
which has recently made black
Backed by the city's
powerful and (by no means just coincidentally) corporate-friendly mayor
Richard M. Daley, Wal-Mart is pushing the Chicago City Council for zoning
changes that will permit it to place its first stores in the
It is no accident that
Wal-Mart is trying to enter
To sweeten the pot for
black community leaders, the company told Kyles that it might consider
hiring ex-offenders. This weak commitment (Wal-Mart can cite no examples
where it has agreed to hire people with criminal records) touches a core
concern in black
A Not-so "Populist" "Public Relations Experiment"
Wal-Mart's statement of interest in hiring some of the ghetto's criminally marked is a small part of what the Chicago Tribune calls "a public relations experiment in Chicago as Wal-Mart girds for similar fights in major cities across the country" The Tribune describes this "experiment" as a "populist" and "grass roots" "campaign" (Olivo, "Wal-Mart Wages"), ignoring the critical difference between pseudo-populist corporate propaganda and genuinely grass-roots populism.
As part of its "charm
offensive" in black
Also advancing a
crass, manipulative, and top-down brand of identity politics, Brookins
introduced his audience to a black
The Wal-Mart executive
didn't say when "the Lord" designated Wal-Mart as a leading organizer of His
laborers on earth, granting the Walton family the right to make obscene
earthly profits off His workers within and beyond the
The Secret of Wal-Mart's Low-Price Success
The second black Wal-Mart executive to speak at Brookins' meeting told his audience that moving up the ladder at Wal-Mart "has allowed me to grow personally and spiritually." He did not comment on the spiritual price he has paid for holding an elevated position at a giant company with a widely reported and ongoing record of abusing and exploiting its workers - a history that is intimately related to its famous low prices. That record includes chronic violation of federal labor laws forbidding the harassment and discharge of workers who try to form unions, regular wage and hour abuse (including the requirement of unpaid overtime), locking night-shift workers into stores, hiring and severely exploiting undocumented workers, violating child labor laws, and discriminating against black and female workers.
According to Dorian T.
Warren, an Erskine Peters Fellow in African-American studies at Notre Dame
and a resident of one of the
Consistent with this
history, Wal-Mart provides inadequate compensation to it workers. It pays
an average wage ($8.23 an hour) that is considerably below the
The company also makes it notoriously difficult for its "team members" (as the company likes it calls its workers) to obtain benefits. Wal-Mart's large number and percentage of part-time employees do not become eligible for health insurance until they put in two years at the firm. Even after that period, they are not permitted to buy coverage for their families. Thanks to exceedingly high deductibles and co-payments, moreover, full-time Wal-Mart workers with health insurance pay for more than 40 percent of their coverage. And two years ago, Wal-Mart changed its definition of part-time work from 28 to 34 hours a week.
These miserly compensation policies make many Wal-Mart employees eligible to receive public assistance. The American welfare state, such as it is, subsidizes the company's Dickensian personnel practices - just one of many ways that American taxpayers support Wal-Mart. According to a recent report by "Good Jobs First," a Washington DC-based research group (see the study, SHOPPING FOR SUBSIDIES, at www.goodjobsfirst.org), Wal-Mart has benefited from more than $1 billion in economic development subsidies from state and local governments across the United States. "Wal-Mart presents itself as an entrepreneurial success story," notes the study's principal author Philip Mattera, "yet it has made extensive use of tax breaks, free land, cash grants and other forms of public assistance." "The subsidies to Wal-Mart are particularly troubling," says Good Jobs First (GFJ), "given that the company uses taxpayer dollars to create jobs that tend to be poverty-wage, part-time and lacking in adequate healthcare benefits." GFJ thinks that "any retailer receiving subsidies should be required to pay its employees a living wage."
Ironically (or appropriately) enough, the super-opulent Walton family that founded and owns Wal-Mart invests heavily in the domestic policy agenda of the radically regressive Republican Party, which seeks to shred what's left of the social safety net for poor people
Like other giant
American corporations past and present, Wal-Mart exercises significant
influence on the policies of other firms. It sets the pace for an
inter-capitalist "race to the bottom" of the wage, benefit, and
corporate-welfare scale, providing other retail chains with an excuse for
requiring their own workers to give back hard-won gains. The recent grocery
strike in southern
"Jobs, Jobs, Jobs?"
Wal-Mart's main claim
to helping "solve the city's social ills" is the simple provision of jobs.
But social-scientific evaluations of the retail giant's likely labor market
impact contradict Wal-Mart's job-creationist claims. A report completed in
March by the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED) at the
The store would not
even meaningfully expand low-cost retail options in
This assessment is consistent with Wal-Mart's well-documented record of reducing local employment and shopping options and increasing the concentration of wealth and power across the nation.
Then there's the
negative impact that Wal-Mart's global purchasing practices have on
A Low-Road Template of Capitalist Ruthlessness
Wal-Mart's collateral damage is historic and monumental, transcending its impact on two neighborhoods or one city. As historian Susan Strasser recently noted at a major academic conference that assessed Wal-Mart's meaning for "capitalist culture" and American living standards, "Wal-Mart has come to represent something that's even bigger than it is."
Some of the most perceptive reflections at that conference came from distinguished labor and business historian Nelson Lichtenstein. "In each historical epoch a prototypical enterprise seems to embody a new and innovative set of economic structures and social relationships," Lichtenstein noted. "These template businesses are emulated because they have put in place, indeed perfected for their era, the most efficient and profitable relationship between the technology of production, the organization of work and the new shape of the market."
"In the 19th century," Lichtenstein elaborated, "the standard-setting company was the Pennsylvania Railroad; in the mid-20th century, it was General Motors; and in the late 20th century, it was Microsoft. Today's prototypical company is Wal-Mart, which rezones American cities, sets wage standards and even conducts diplomacy with other nations. In short, the company's management legislates for the rest of us key components of American social and industrial policy. Wal-Mart has created a very different model from General Motors," Lichtenstein added, noting that "G.M. helped build the world's most affluent middle class by paying wages far above the average and by providing generous health and pension plans.... G.M.'s wage pattern spurred other companies to raise compensation levels, while Wal-Mart's relatively low wages and benefits...[do] the opposite."
Seen in Lichtenstein's broad historical perspective, Wal-Mart's offer of 300 or so poorly paying positions distributing goods manufactured in low-wage "developing nations" is a rather long cry from the days of U.S. Steel, Wisconsin Steel, Armour's (meatpacking), Swift's (meatpacking), International Harvester (farm equipment machinery), Western Electric, and the Pullman Palace Car Company, when giant, white-owned and managed American corporations offered tens of thousands of relatively decent family and community-supporting jobs to black Chicagoans (see Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Black Metropolis, New York, NY: 1946).
According to Simon
Head, a fellow at the mainstream Century Foundation and author of
The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age (Oxford
University Press, 2003), "Wal-Mart is certainly a template of 21st-century
capitalism, but a capitalism that increasingly resembles a capitalism of 100
years ago." He added, "It combines the extremely dynamic use of technology
with a very authoritarian and ruthless managerial culture" (Strasser,
Lichtenstein, and Head are quoted in Steven Greenhouse, "Wal-Mart, A Nation
Price, Principle, and Prostitution
It's encouraging in
more than local way, then, to learn that Wal-Mart's racially calculated
Pastors at nine black
As William Lucy, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists notes, "slaves technically had jobs too." And according to Jeremiah Wright, the influential minister at Trinity, "whenever price means more to you than principle, you have defined yourself as a prostitute" (Mihalopolous, "Nobody Neutral").
Following in the
footsteps of a recent, genuinely grassroots campaign to keep Wal-Mart out of
the black Los-Angeles area community of
On Wednesday, May 26th, the aldermen of Chicago will decide whether or not to re-zone Chicago in accordance with the wishes of China's eighth-largest trading partner. It's a key moment for those who reject urban development along the lines of "business [in-charge] as usual." The zoning changes must not be granted unless and until Wal-Mart signs on to the Community Benefits Agreement, putting it at least partly on the higher road that justice and decency demand of those who would conduct economic development in democratic societies.
[Editor's postscript: On 5/26, the Chicago City Council approved a zoning change that opens the door for Wal-Mart to build a huge store in the mostly poor and minority West Side. Wal-Mart's bid to open a store in the predominantly working class South Side was defeated by one vote.]
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