- Bullying people from your town to China...
- Corporations rule. No other institution comes close to
matching the power that the 500 biggest corporations have amassed over
us. The clout of all 535 members of Congress is nothing compared to the
individual and collective power of these predatory behemoths that now roam
the globe, working their will over all competing interests.
- The aloof and pampered executives who run todays autocratic
and secretive corporate states have effectively become our sovereigns.
From who gets health care to who pays taxes, from what's on the news to
what's in our food, they have usurped the people's democratic authority
and now make these broad social decisions in private, based solely on the
interests of their corporations. Their attitude was forged back in 1882,
when the villainous old robber baron William Henry Vanderbilt spat out:
"The public be damned! I'm working for my stockholders."
- The media and politicians won't discuss this, for obvious
reasons, but we must if we're actually to be a self-governing people. That's
why the Lowdown is launching this occasional series of corporate profiles.
And why not start with the biggest and one of the worst actors?
- The beast from Bentonville
- Wal-Mart is now the world's biggest corporation, having
passed ExxonMobil 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
image 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 planet.
- 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 2001" 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, 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're held to part-time
work. While the company brags that 70% 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 improper
- 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,
- 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 meat elsewhere.
- 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% 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
- 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% a year, with many stores having to replace 100% of their employees
each year, and some reaching as high as a 300% turnover!
- Worldwide wage-depressor
- 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 factory conditions."
- 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-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
- 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.
- The Wal-Mart gospel
- 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
- 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 monopoly
control over the market.
- But, say apologists for these Big-Box mega-stores, 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
- 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).
- It's our world
- 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 to vote.
- 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.
- More of Jim Hightower's writing can be found in his monthly
newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. For more information, see www.jimhightower.com.
- © 2001 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.