Wal-Mart exploits Black workers and others of color throughout the world, yet labor unions and Black civil rights groups are on meeting with Wal-Mart regarding expanding its operation in South Central Los Angeles. Why? The short answer is that these groups tend to soft-pedal Wal-Mart’s history and continuing practice of civil and human rights abuse of Blacks, others of color and women.
Those meeting with Wal-Mart representatives are fully aware that the company periodically announces policy changes that turn out to be nothing more than camouflage to deflect criticism of its discriminatory employment practices. (Its transgressions continue but seldom surface in the media whose values mirror Wal-Mart’s)
This column will continue to criticize Wal-Mart’s global atrocities and the ominous implications for Black Americans. As a pre-eminent abuser of workers’ rights, the giant company confidently continues oppressive control of those least able 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 them as “family.”
Wal-Mart is the culmination of a long history of retailers seeking ever-increasing shares of the market and dominance over 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 the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, which raises a broader question of whether organized labor’s 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, extremely well-heeled and profit-driven, Wal-Mart reflects the nation’s materialistic values , 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-intended, could draw attention away from a fundamental problem, i.e., Wal-Mart’s non-negotiable human and civil rights violations. (A federal court recently ruled against a massive class-action suit brought by Wal-Mart’s women employees-an ominous signal of an ever-broadening Tea Party conservatism?)
An effective, sustainable anti-Wal-Mart effort would be, fundamentally, a movement to “de-fang” mega-corporations. If labor activists and others are only wedded to getting a contract with Wal-Mart, their efforts will have little impact on the underlying issues of its discriminatory practices and other civil and human rights abuses. (This was the point I made in an Urban Perspective column several years ago when local progressives attempted to negotiate with Wal-Mart’s CEO.)
Wal-Mart personifies corporate America’s proclivity to keep working people subservient when the underlying problem is a dire need for quality jobs. Naturally, Wal-Mart, the quintessential mega corporate model, rejects this analysis; unfortunately, relatively few liberals of any color, are willing to go beyond the rhetoric of change and actually challenge Wal-Mart or its cohorts on a sustainable basis.
Sadly, many poor and ill-informed Blacks also tout the benefits of Wal-Mart’s discounted, often inferior merchandise. This underscores the desperation of the poor as well as the detrimental effect of the Black middle-class’ silence which provide Wal-Mart with plenty of openings to penetrate Black neighborhoods and their political leadership.
But not everyone is bamboozled: Consider the comments of Blacks in Chicago three years ago when Wal-Mart was seeking to build in their community. “……….We want jobs that will add to the life of the community……..We cannot allow Wal-Mart to frame the issue as Wal-Mart vs. the unions rather than Wal-Mart vs. the community….. Frankly, we didn’t realize the leadership crisis in the Black community or counter the understandable lure of Wal-Mart’s exorbitantly costly discounts for people of limited means.”
Concerned, engaged citizens are indispensable for sustainable solutions and most Black people understand that civil and human rights should trump property rights. But Wal-Mart is Americana, so challenging its hegemony is all the more daunting. And Blacks must be in the vanguard denouncing what Wal-Mart stands for as contrary to their interests and the interests of all who value human life over profit and materialism.
Currently, some Los Angeles community, labor and civil rights leaders are courting an expansion of Wal-Mart. They should not proceed without Wal-Mart’s official acknowledgment of its past exploitation of Blacks and an unequivocal commitment to policies and practices that protect workers’ rights. Without clear contractual safeguards that protect Black people’s rights, Wal-Mart should not be permitted to expand in South Central Los Angeles.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.