The Sins of Wal-Mart

Robert Greenwald’s documentary film on Wal-Mart is being shown at screenings across the nation this week. With personal stories told by former and current employees, customers and neighbors of Wal-Mart, and no shortage of pointed visuals, the film attacks the world’s largest retailer for a number of violations of the moral glue that holds society together. The movie alleges the following moral if not actual crimes against the retail giant.

  • Offering a health insurance plan for its workers that is prohibitively expensive to a large percentage of them, and then encouraging them to apply for government-run social welfare programs.
  • Employing workers in China at a rate of 18 cents a day, requiring them to work six or seven days a week well beyond your typical eight-hour day, and making them pay for squalid barracks housing even if they choose to live elsewhere.
  • Paying its American employees poverty-level wages while preventing them from forming a union.
  • Hollowing out small towns across the nation by underselling countless small businesses, and behind closed doors, being glib about it, too.
  • Tricking and bullying local governments into offering Wal-Mart tax breaks not offered to small businesses; then failing to live up to the promises it made to get those breaks.
  • Systematically denying promotions of women and African Americans into positions of authority.
  • Not living up to its responsibility to effectively police its vast, dark parking lots, which are havens for rape, kidnapping, assault and theft.
  • Wildly enriching some half-dozen heirs at the rate of $18 billion apiece — people who then spend their money on a giant underground apocalypse-bunker while giving a minuscule 1% to charity, compared to more than 50% for Bill Gates.
  • Using dirty tricks or outright strong-arming to get their employees to work extra hours off the clock; then even deleting records of overtime that make it into the payroll.
  • Failing to prevent environmental damage to a public watershed river that absorbs chemically tainted parking lot runoff water.

    Wal-Mart has attempted to refute some of the many criticisms against it by putting up a website called walmartfacts.com. I find this movie a great deal more compelling. You should buy a copy of the film, read Wal-Mart’s website, and judge for yourself whether this giant corporation is treating the rest of society fairly, or manipulating it in pursuit of profit.

    Now a word about that word, profit. Sometimes people demonize it, as if anyone earning a profit is somehow evil. Startsandfits.com has no problem with people earning a profit on a venture that involves a degree of risk, as they all do. A person who has a great idea that helps others pursue their goals ought to be rewarded financially, and in extremely large sums if their idea is that great, and doesn’t hurt anybody. It is that promise of financial reward that encourages the innovation that propels humanity forward. It’s the essence of capitalism, which for all its faults, is the best system that the human race has come up with for organizing economic activity. Where Wal-Mart runs into trouble is with that little piece about not hurting anybody.

    Because the potential to earn a profit is critical to successful capitalism, anything that infringes on an entrepreneur’s ability to profit, however slightly, should be considered only in the most outrageous set of circumstances. Even with this high standard, there are other needs can trump the untempered ability to pursue profit. Protecting the fine-grained, nonexploitative systems of commerce between townsfolk across America is one such reason. James Howard Kunstler has written about how Wal-Mart sacks local economies that grew up over centuries.

    We will have to recreate the lost infrastructures of local and regional commerce, and it will have to be multi-layered. These were the people that WalMart systematically put out of business over the last thirty years. The wholesalers, the jobbers, the small-retailers. They were economic participants in their communities; they made decisions that had to take the needs of their communities into account. they were employers who employed their neighbors. They were a substantial part of the middle-class of every community in America and all of them together played civic roles in our communities as the caretakers of institutions – the people who sat on the library boards, and the hospital boards, and bought the balls and bats and uniforms for the little league teams. We got rid of them in order to save nine bucks on a hair dryer.

    Just why is it so important to have flourishing local economies if goods are cheaper at Wal-Mart? In The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler eulogizes the small town main street of Schuylerville, N.Y., which could be anywhere in the country: It used to thrive but is now an empty shell of its former self. In their place, he notes, are “X and Y Corporations,” which have their corporate headquarters in distant cities and thus don’t have an incentive to invest in the places where they do business. The stores do pay local taxes, and they

    also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. But what they contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corporate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live in Schuylerville, have no vested interest in the upkeep of the hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what the town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off the shelves.

    Folks, we are lucky to live in New York City. This is a city where people buy and sell things from local people, in some small way reinforcing the social bonds that tie us all together as humans and members of a society, not simply anonymous consumers. Here, shopping involves jostling through the crowded sidewalks of Herald Square, not the anomie of driving into a sea of parking, alone, and walking into a soulless warehouse where nobody knows your name or cares to learn it. Ours is a city where century old buildings are still economically useful, where strips of small scale businesses are as busy as they were 100 years ago, and where there is not a single Wal-Mart store.

    Does that fact make life in New York City a little less convenient? Sure. We can’t get everything at the same store, but have to visit different stores at different times. Does that mean that for a given budget, we can buy fewer things? Yes it does. But how much happier would that extra increment of things make us? Aren’t we happier enjoying the street life and human interaction on the crowded sidewalks of this singular metropolis? If the proliferation of self-storage warehouses is any indication, don’t we have enough stuff already?

    Would a Wal-Mart be a commercial success here? Of course it would. It would be mobbed from day one. That’s why Wal-Mart is desperate to open up a store in town. But imagine the consequences to the city. Some number of businesses throughout the city that are doing well will start to do less well. Some number of businesses that are marginally profitable will close. Many of the people employed by these businesses will become suddenly poorer, so much so that they might very well be able to shop only at Wal-Mart, feeding more business into the monster, which as my girlfriend says, seems to spread across the country like a computer virus. Economic forces are compelling Wal-Mart to open here in New York City. It will take political action to keep the monster outside the gates.

    - WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price
    - Remarks in Hudson, NY, January 8, 2005 [Kunstler.com]
    - The Geography of Nowhere [Barnes & Noble - a local company since 1917, headquartered at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, and with its flagship store at that intersection since the Depression]

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    4 Responses to The Sins of Wal-Mart

    1. Mary Campbell Gallagher says:

      Excellent work.

      MCG

    2. peakguy says:

      We need to set Minimum Standards on the whole chain of custody for all goods sold in this country. When we set minimum standards in this country for workers it was because we were willing to bare the higher cost burden to stop inhumane practices. But these standards no longer apply to the goods we see in the shopping market. It’s also why our manufacturing base has been striped away by those willing to engage in inhumane practices. Walmart is responsible for the entire chain of custody from inhumane producer to satisfied bargain shopper.

    3. Anonymous says:

      Heres my personal experience with Slave Mart.

      Having relocated to Florida from NYC, I was in need of immediate employment. Walmart was always hiring so I figured I’d go in and find something with them temporarily until I could branch out into the job market and find something in my true field (Financial Services). I applied at a Walmart and was offered the option of either management trainee position or Auto Service Technician. Although I accepted management trainee, it was changed without notice to Autotech, which Human Resources later explained was a miscommunication based on what she thought I had accepted. Not wanting to make waves and seeing the job as only a temporary situation, I decided to accept the Auto Tech position. The first two weeks with Walmart, I was supposed to be in training for Auto Tech Servicing. Instead I was assigned to tidy up inventory, clean garbage off sale floors, assemble lawn mowers and take basic operations related courses in their computer lab. Friday afternoon, after completing my second work week, I was headed to punch out on the time clock when the manager told me.. not ask mind you, that I had to come in on Saturday and Sunday and work 7am to 4pm. This was without any prior notice on a Fathers day weekend and it was also over the maximum hours (40) they explicitly told me I had to stay under based on company policy. Reluctingly, I reported in the following morning and to my added dismay was told I had to scrape the walls in the Auto Service Waiting Room and prepare it for painting. After completing that task, I was then instructed to paint the walls which to me was the last straw. I asked the superviser why I was assigned to come in over the weekend to scrape and paint walls without even the courtesy of asking me if I didn’t mind. Especially when I am supposed to be training as Auto Service Tech and clearly that had nothing to do with my job. The answer I got was that any employee in Walmart can be pulled from their position and asked to perform any other position because that is the culture of retail operations. My thought was… so basically, tomorrow I could conceivably be assigned cut coldcuts at the deli counter if they felt the need. It’s no wonder Walmart is so anti-union.

      Well, that was it for me. I told the manager that was unacceptable and that with all the earnings Walmart makes, the least they could do is spring for a painting contractor to do the job instead of trying to manipulate or fool people into into performing taks they did not apply for or shouldn’t have to do. I walked out right there and then. As far as I’m concerned, no one should have to put up with that nonsense, especially at the meager wages they pay.

      Shame on Slave Mart!!

    4. Anonymous says:

      Heres my personal experience with Slave Mart.

      Having relocated to Florida from NYC, I was in immediate need of employment. So I figured I’d apply at Walmart and find something with them temporarily. I applied and was offered the option of either management trainee position (which I accepted) or Auto Service Technician. The position was changed without notice to Autotech, which Human Resources later explained was due to a miscommunication on what they thought I had accepted. Not wanting to make waves and seeing the job as only a temporary situation, I reported in and accepted the situation. The first two weeks with Walmart, I was assigned to tidy up inventory, clean garbage off sale floors, assemble lawn mowers and take basic operations related courses in their computer lab. Not one task related to Auto Servicing. Friday afternoon, after completing my second work week, I was headed out the door when the manager told me.. not “asked” mind you, that I had to come in on Saturday and Sunday and work 7am to 4pm. This was last minute demand without any prior notice on a Fathers day weekend and it was also over the maximum hours (40) they explicitly told me I had to stay under based on company policy. Reluctingly, I came in the following morning and to was told I had to scrape the walls in the Auto Service Waiting Room and prepare it for painting. After completing that task, I was then instructed to paint the walls, which to me was the last straw. I asked the superviser why I had been assigned to come in over the weekend to perform these taskswalls without even the courtesy of asking me if I didn’t mind. Especially when I am supposed to be training as Auto Service Tech and clearly that had nothing to do with my job. The answer I got was that any employee in Walmart can be pulled from their position and asked to perform any other position because that is the culture of retail operations. My thought process at that point was… so basically, tomorrow I could conceivably be assigned to cut coldcuts at the deli counter if they felt the need. It’s no wonder Walmart is so anti-union.

      Well, that was it for me. I told the manager that it was unacceptable and that with all the earnings Walmart makes, the least they could do is spring for a painting contractor to come in and do the job instead of trying to manipulate or fool people into into performing taks they did not apply for or shouldn’t be required to do. I walked out right there and then. As far as I’m concerned, no one should have to put up with that nonsense, especially at the meager wages they pay.

      Shame on Slave Mart!!