Wal-Mart is now the world's biggest corporation, having passed
Exxon/Mobil for the top slot. It hauls off a stunning $220 billion a
year from We the People (more in revenues than the entire GDP of
Israel and Ireland combined). Wal-Mart cultivates an aw-shucks, we're-just-folks-from-Arkansas mage of neighborly small-town shopkeepers trying to sell stuff cheaply to you and yours. Behind its soft homespun ads, however, is
what one union leader calls "this devouring beast" of a corporation
that ruthlessly stomps on workers, neighborhoods, competitors, and
suppliers. Despite its claim that it slashes profits to the bone in order to
deliver "Always Low Prices," Wal-Mart banks about $7 billion a year
in profits, ranking it among the most profitable entities on the
Of the 10 richest people in the world, five are Waltons -- the ruling
family of the Wal-Mart empire. S. Robson Walton is ranked by
London's "Rich List" as the wealthiest human on the planet,
having sacked up more than $65 billion ($45.3 billion) in personal
wealth and topping Bill Gates as No. 1. Wal-Mart and the Waltons got to the top the old-fashioned way -- by roughing people up. The corporate ethos emanating from the Bentonville headquarters dictates two guiding principles for all
managers: extract the very last penny possible from human toil, and
squeeze the last dime from every supplier.
With more than one million employees (three times more than General
Motors), this far-flung retailer is the country's largest private
employer, and it intends to remake the image of the American
workplace in its image -- which is not pretty.
Yes, there is the happy-faced "greeter" who welcomes shoppers into
every store, (although the greeter at my local Wal-mart doesn't always look so cheerful) and employees (or "associates," as the company
grandiosely calls them) gather just before opening each morning for a
pep rally, where they are all required to join in the Wal-Mart
cheer: "Gimme a W!" shouts the cheerleader; "W!" the dutiful
employees respond. "Gimme an A!" And so on.
Behind this manufactured cheerfulness, however, is the fact that the
average employee makes only $15,000 a year for full-time work. Most
are denied even this poverty income, for they are held to part-time
work. While the company brags that 70 percent of its workers are full-
time, at Wal-Mart "full time" is 28 hours a week, meaning they gross
less than $11,000 a year.
Health-care benefits? Only if you've been there two years; then the
plan hits you with such huge premiums that few can afford it -- only
38% of Wal-Marters are covered.
Thinking union? Get outta here! "Wal-Mart is opposed to
unionization," reads a company guidebook for supervisors. "You, as a
manager, are expected to support the company's position. . . . This
may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and
Wal-Mart is in fact rabidly anti-union, deploying teams of union-
busters from Bentonville to any spot where there's a whisper of
organizing activity. "While unions might be appropriate for other
companies, they have no place at Wal-Mart," a spokeswoman told a
Texas Observer reporter who was covering an NLRB hearing on the
company's manhandling of 11 meat-cutters who worked at a Wal-Mart
SuperCenter in Jacksonville, Texas.
These derring-do employees were sick of working harder and longer for
the same low pay. "We signed [union] cards, and all hell broke
loose," says Sidney Smith, one of the Jacksonville meat-cutters who
established the first-ever Wal-Mart union in the U.S., voting in
February 2000 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. Eleven
days later, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing the meat-cutting
departments in all of its stores and would henceforth buy prepackaged
But the repressive company didn't stop there. As the Observer
reports: "Smith was fired for 'theft' after a manger agreed to let
him buy a box of overripe bananas for 50 cents, Smith ate one banana
before paying for the box, and was judged to have stolen that
banana." Wal-Mart is an unrepentant and recidivist violator of employee
rights, drawing repeated convictions, fines, and the ire of judges
from coast to coast. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission has had to file more suits against the Bentonville
billionaires club for cases of disability discrimination than any
other corporation. A top EEOC lawyer told Business Week, "I have
never seen this kind of blatant disregard for the law."
Likewise, a national class-action suit reveals an astonishing pattern
of sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart (where 72 percent of the
salespeople are women), charging that there is "a harsh, anti-woman
culture in which complaints go unanswered and the women who make them
are targeted for retaliation."
Workers' compensation laws, child-labor laws (1,400 violations in
Maine alone), surveillance of employees -- you name it, this
corporation is a repeat offender. No wonder, then, that turnover in
the stores is above 50 percent a year, with many stores having to
replace 100 percent of their employees each year, and some reaching
as high as a 300 percent turnover!
Then there's China. For years, Wal-Mart saturated the airwaves with
a "We Buy American" advertising campaign, but it was nothing more
than a red-white-and-blue sham. All along, the vast majority of the
products it sold were from cheap-labor hell-holes, especially China.
In 1998, after several exposes of this sham, the company finally
dropped its "patriotism" posture and by 2001 had even moved its
worldwide purchasing headquarters to China. Today, it is the largest
importer of Chinese-made products in the world, buying $10 billion
worth of merchandise from several thousand Chinese factories.
As Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee reports, "In
country after country, factories that produce for Wal-Mart are the
worst," adding that the bottom-feeding labor policy of this one
corporation "is actually lowering standards in China, slashing wages
and benefits, imposing long mandatory-overtime shifts, while
tolerating the arbitrary firing of workers who even dare to discuss
Wal-Mart does not want the U.S. buying public to know that its famous
low prices are the product of human misery, so while it loudly
proclaims that its global suppliers must comply with a
corporate "code of conduct" to treat workers decently, it strictly
prohibits the disclosure of any factory names and addresses, hoping
to keep independent sources from witnessing the "code" in operation.
Kernaghan's NLC, acclaimed for its fact-packed reports on global
working conditions, found several Chinese factories that make the
toys Americans buy for their children at Wal-Mart. Seventy-one
percent of the toys sold in the U.S. come from China, and Wal-Mart
now sells one out of five of the toys we buy.
NLC interviewed workers in China's Guangdong Province who toil in
factories making popular action figures, dolls, and other toys sold
at Wal-Mart. In "Toys of Misery," a shocking 58-page report that the
establishment media ignored, NLC describes: 13- to 16-hour days molding, assembling, and spray-painting toys from
8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or even midnight, seven days a week, with 20-hour
shifts in peak season.
Even though China's minimum wage is 31 cents an hour -- which doesn't
begin to cover a person's basic subsistence-level needs -- these
production workers are paid 13 cents an hour.
Workers typically live in squatter shacks, seven feet by seven feet,
or jammed in company dorms, with more than a dozen sharing a cubicle
costing $1.95 a week for rent. They pay about $5.50 a week for lousy
food. They also must pay for their own medical treatment and are
fired if they are too ill to work.
The work is literally sickening, since there's no health and safety
enforcement. Workers have constant headaches and nausea from paint-
dust hanging in the air; the indoor temperature tops 100 degrees;
protective clothing is a joke; repetitive stress disorders are
rampant; and there's no training on the health hazards of handling
the plastics, glue, paint thinners, and other solvents in which these
workers are immersed every day.
As for Wal-Mart's highly vaunted "code of conduct," NLC could not
find a single worker who had ever seen or heard of it.
These factories employ mostly young women and teenage girls. Wal-
Mart, renowned for knowing every detail of its global business
operations and for calculating every penny of a product's cost, knows
what goes on inside these places. Yet, when confronted with these
facts, corporate honchos claim ignorance and wash their hands of the
exploitation: "There will always be people who break the law," says
CEO Lee Scott. "It is an issue of human greed among a few people."
Those "few people" include him, other top managers, and the Walton
billionaires. Each of them not only knows about their company's
exploitation, but willingly prospers from a corporate culture that
demands it. "Get costs down" is Wal-Mart's mantra and modus operandi,
and that translates into a crusade to stamp down the folks who
produce its goods and services, shamelessly building its low-price
strategy and profits on their backs.
Worse, Wal-Mart is on a messianic mission to extend its exploitative
ethos to the entire business world. More than 65,000 companies supply
the retailer with the stuff on its shelves, and it constantly hammers
each supplier about cutting their production costs deeper and deeper
in order to get cheaper wholesale prices. Some companies have to open
their books so Bentonville executives can red-pencil what CEO Scott
terms "unnecessary costs."
Of course, among the unnecessaries to him are the use of union labor
and producing goods in America, and Scott is unabashed about pointing
in the direction of China or other places for abysmally low
production costs. He doesn't even have to say "Move to China" -- his
purchasing executives demand such an impossible lowball price from
suppliers that they can only meet it if they follow Wal-Mart's labor
example. With its dominance over its own 1.2 million workers and
65,000 suppliers, plus its alliances with ruthless labor abusers
abroad, this one company is the world's most powerful private force
for lowering labor standards and stifling the middle-class
aspirations of workers everywhere.
Using its sheer size, market clout, access to capital, and massive
advertising budget, the company also is squeezing out competitors and
forcing its remaining rivals to adopt its price-is-everything
approach. Even the big boys like Toys R Us and Kroger are daunted by the
company's brutish power, saying they're compelled to slash wages and
search the globe for sweatshop suppliers in order to compete in the
downward race to match Wal-Mart's prices.
How high of a price are we willing to pay for Wal-Mart's "low-price"
model? This outfit operates with an avarice, arrogance, and ambition
that would make Enron blush. It hits a town or city neighborhood like
a retailing neutron bomb, sucking out the economic vitality and all
of the local character. And Wal-Mart's stores now have more kill-
power than ever, with its SuperCenters averaging 200,000 square feet -
- the size of more than four football fields under one roof! These
things land splat on top of any community's sense of itself and
devour local business.
By slashing its retail prices way below cost when it enters a
community, Wal-Mart can crush our groceries, pharmacies, hardware
stores, and other retailers, then raise its prices once it has mono-
poly control over the market.
But, say apologists for these Big-Box megastores, at least they're
creating jobs. Wrong. By crushing local businesses, this giant
eliminates three decent jobs for every two Wal-Mart jobs that
it "creates" and a store full of part-time, poorly paid employees
hardly builds the family wealth necessary to sustain a community's
middle-class living standard.
Indeed, Wal-Mart operates as a massive wealth extractor. Instead of
profits staying in town to be reinvested locally, the money is hauled
off to Bentonville, either to be used as capital for conquering yet
another town or simply to be stashed in the family vaults (the
Waltons, by the way, just bought the biggest bank in Arkansas).
Why should we accept this? Is it our country, our communities, our
economic destinies -- or theirs? Wal-Mart's radical remaking of our
labor standards and our local economies is occurring mostly without
our knowledge or consent. Poof -- there goes another local business.
Poof -- there goes our middle-class wages. Poof -- there goes another
factory to China. No one voted for this . . . but there it is. While
corporate ideologues might huffily assert that customers vote with
their dollars, it's an election without a campaign, conveniently
ignoring that the public's "vote" might change if we knew the real
cost of Wal-Mart's "cheap" goods -- and if we actually had a chance
Much to the corporation's consternation, more and more communities
are learning about this voracious powerhouse, and there's a rising
civic rebellion against it. Tremendous victories have already been
won as citizens from Maine to Arizona, from the Puget Sound to the
Gulf of Mexico, have organized locally and even statewide to thwart
the expansionist march of the Wal-Mart juggernaut.
Wal-Mart is huge, but it can be brought to heel by an aroused and
organized citizenry willing to confront it in their communities, the
workplace, the marketplace, the classrooms, the pulpits, the
legislatures, and the voting booths. Just as the Founders rose up
against the mighty British trading companies, so we can reassert our
people's sovereignty and our democratic principles over the
autocratic ambitions of mighty Wal-Mart.
One last thing: I received a report of a truck driver in
Arizona who he said he
stopped at a WALMART to deliver some things, AND WAS SHOCKED AT WHAT
HE SAW! He said that he went into the back of WALMART, and behind the store
there was a HUGE area that was fenced in with barbed wire, JUST like
in the prisons! He said it was fixed to where once you were held in
it, you couldn't get out. It was very high, and there were some kind
of stands (like stadium bleacher seats) all around it, and it looked
like a military style setting. He also said there was nothing in the
enclosed area YET, but it was just closed in with barbed wire.
Could this be part of the martial law future scenario to
come? This truck driver who saw it said it looked like it was there
to hold a large number of people. I've heard reports concerning
WALMART's covert involvement in things of this nature, and how the government and military are planning to pick people up under martial law and take them to holding facilities like this nationwide. The truck driver was badly shaken over seeing all of this. He said he asked someone about it, and no one would tell him anything about it at WALMART!