Wal-Mart periodically announces policy changes that turn out to be nothing more than camouflage to deflect criticism of its discriminatory employment practices. But its transgressions don't often surface in mainstream media whose values largely mirror those of the giant corporation.
This column will continue to criticize Wal-Mart's global atrocities and the implications for Black Americans and others of color. As a preeminent abuser of workers' rights throughout the world it confidently continues oppressive control of those powerless to defend themselves.
The business model developed by Wal-Mart's founding father, Sam Walton, was hatched in its first stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Walton exploited the pools of "surplus labor" that resulted from corporate agricultural consolidation and the ravages of the Great Depression. Small farmers turned to wage labor in an attempt to keep their land.
Walton's employees were overwhelmingly White, drawn from one of the most exclusively White regions in the nation–the Ozarks. There, he capitalized on the patriarchal, small farmer mentality of his customers and employees, shrewdly referring to his employees as "family." (Actually, they were the first wave of his expanding small town empire.)
Wal-Mart is the end result of a long history of retailers seeking ever-increasing shares of the market and dominance over the companies that actually make the products. Ironically, unions first welcomed the mega-stores and opposed anti-chain legislation, preferring to organize large chains rather than thousands of small stores.
Wal-Mart now accounts for approximately two-percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, raising the broader question of whether organized labors' routinely linking up with bigger and bigger companies is in the workers best interests. Do unions necessarily become more powerful by doing so?
Wal-Mart is the logical result of capitalistic enterprise and counter movements must emphasize that the company's self-serving encroachments are founded on mass exploitation of disadvantaged workers. Hyper-aggressive, well-heeled, and profit-driven, Wal-Mart, reflecting the nation's values and priorities, is well regarded and broadly supported.
It is estimated that if Wal-Mart raised the price of every item by just one-cent, it could provide adequate health care for all employees. Such a suggestion, though perhaps well meaning, could draw attention away from the underlying problem, i.e., Wal-Mart's non-negotiable human and civil rights violations. (The company may actually favor a high turnover so that long-term employees won't make demands on it–a cynical, but plausible possibility.)
An effective, sustainable anti-Wal-Mart effort will be fundamentally, a movement to "de-fang" corporations. If labor activists are only wedded to getting a contract with Wal-Mart, their efforts will be largely irrelevant to vast sectors of the public. (This was precisely the point made in a previous Urban Perspective column sometime ago, when local progressives attempted to barter with Wal-Mart's CEO.)
Wal-Mart personifies corporate Americas' proclivity to keep working people in poverty, and the issue goes beyond whether it is a good or bad employer; simply put, the underlying problem is the dire need for quality jobs. Of course, as the quintessential corporate model, Wal-Mart would not resonate with this. More disturbing though, is that relatively few liberals are willing to go beyond the rhetoric of change and actively challenge corporate giants.
Sadly, many ill-informed Blacks also tout the benefits of Wal-Mart's discounted (but inferior quality) merchandise. This underscores the desperation of the poor as well as the detrimental effect of the silence of upwardly mobile Blacks that provide Wal-Mart with plenty of openings to penetrate Black neighborhoods and their political leadership.
Not everyone is bamboozled: Comments like…"We want jobs that will add to the life of the community….We allowed Wal-Mart to frame the issue as Wal-Mart versus the unions rather than Wal-Mart versus the community …Frankly, we didn't realize the leadership crisis in the Black community"– counter the understandable lure of Wal-Mart's exorbitantly costly discounts,( in terms of human suffering.)
Concerned, engaged citizens are indispensible for sustainable solutions and Black people, in general, understand full well that human rights should trump property rights, even though many may not act it. They are the one group for whom the alternative is obvious.
Wal-Mart is America and this makes challenging its hegemony all the more daunting. Blacks must be in the vanguard denouncing all that Wal-Mart stands for as contrary not only to their interests, but the interests of all who value human life over profit and materialism.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.