Reform at Wal-Mart?
By Nico Pitney
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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