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Reform at Wal-Mart?

By Nico Pitney

6/18/04

Upside Down World

It was a vast and shameless annual meeting worthy of the vast and shameless corporation that hosted it.

With blue and white concert lights flickering and Patti LaBelle belting out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," more than 15,000 store employees, shareholders, and executives filled up the University of Arkansas' basketball arena last Friday to "cheer and wave flags" and celebrate the worker-exploiting, taxpayer-gouging, sprawl-inducing, sweatshop-abusing behemoth known as Wal-Mart.

The corporate culture of America's New Gilded Age was on full display. Store employees, many of whom make near-poverty wages, were urged by one wealthy executive to go out and tell "our" story because "we're under scrutiny like we never have been before." Later, Reuters reported, "Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe danced in the aisle and former CEO David Glass -- flanked by [Halle] Berry and actress Susan Lucci -- did the twist."

"Any criticism of the company," Reuters added, "seemed a million miles away."

Except that it wasn't -- in fact, it was just down the road. A coalition of Arkansas social justice activists called Against the Wal organized a convergence in Fayetteville to protest the shareholders' meeting, and will be leading a roadshow with musical performances and Wal-Mart teach-ins through the mid-south next month. The embedded Reuters reporter just didn't bother to look.

Still, the meeting's jovial atmosphere was understandable. Wal-Mart's profits soared 18 percent this quarter, and the company has announced plans to litter "big box" warehouses and superstores around the globe, from rural America to Europe, Japan, and China (the site, notably, of this year's Wal-Mart board meeting).

Moreover, the Bush administration is firmly backing Wal-Mart's favorite Congressional legislation that would force class action lawsuits out of state courts and into "defendant-friendly federal courts" -- great news for a company that is "sued more often than any American entity except the U.S. government."

The big story from this weekend's meeting, though, was a pledge by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to cut bonuses to top executives by a measly 7.5 percent -- that's bonuses, not salaries -- if the store failed to meet diversity goals. Additionally, Scott said, the company will soon be reorganizing its pay structure. No details were announced, other than this one magnanimous promise sure to make workers salivate in anticipation of forthcoming riches: many employees will not receive a pay increase, but no one will actually see their wages drop.

CEO Scott, it should be mentioned, makes 897 times the pay of the average Wal-Mart worker. I've had a good time daydreaming about that enlightening fact suddenly flashing up on the arena megatron behind Scott while he's announcing these sham pay tweaks.

Explanations for the reforms ran the cynical gambit. One 14-year Wal-Mart veteran "alluded to the bad publicity over Wal-Mart's pay and negative comments from politicians," Business Week reported. Others suggested "a response to the massive sex-discrimination case filed three years ago against Wal-Mart." Retail analyst Robert F. Buchanan guessed that Wal-Mart "may be hoping to use [them] as 'shark repellent against the unions,'" by goading employees into thinking that they don't need to organize to receive wage hikes.

What's clear, of course, is that the harm caused by Wal-Mart and other large retailers must be mitigated, though there is debate over how best to accomplish that. Within the electoral sphere, anti-Wal-Mart activists face many of the same difficulties as progressives more generally when it comes to this year's presidential race.

A vote for Bush/Cheney is out of the question. In March, Vice President Dick Cheney actually toured a Wal-Mart distribution center in Arkansas, where he cited Wal-Mart "as 'one of our nation's best companies'" and, naturally, "marvelled at its efficiency."

John Kerry would surely be somewhat of an improvement. The presumptive Democratic nominee walked the picket line with striking UFCW workers last year and has railed against Wal-Mart in various campaign speeches. Yet other evidence suggests that activists will have to remain vigilant even if Kerry wins. For example, Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, frequently used the same rhetoric as her husband until it was reported in February that she owned more than $1,000,000 in Wal-Mart stock, much of it purchased as recently as 2002.

For this reason, others argue that change must be initiated primarily by independent, bottom-up activist campaigns. University of Deleware historian Susan Strasser has pointed to the grassroots resistance movements that other large, low-wage retailers faced in the past. "Woolworth openly boasted of its high turnover and low pay. Sears was so concerned about an anti-mail-order campaign in 1906 that it started shipping its packages in plain-brown wrappers, [...] and A&P fought a massive antitrust case." Even today, Strasser remarked, Wal-Mart's "success is stimulating countervailing forces."

And to those who doubt whether the goliath can ever be stopped, she noted that "Sears and A&P are now shadows of their former selves, while the Woolworth stores have vanished." Indeed.

So although Wal-Mart is the only major retailer to refuse to sell the popular anti-war flick, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War," you can still probably nab a copy of an old Propellerheads album with that hit track, "History Repeating." Turn it on at your next local anti-Wal-Mart meeting -- I hear it's great when you're doing the twist.

Nico Pitney is an activist in southern California and the author of PriorityWire.org, updated around-the-clock with interesting news and tidbits about globalization, trade, corporate power, and development issues. He can be reached at prioritywire@yahoo.com

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano