We Must Stay Silent No Longer
Wal-Mart Is Remaking Our World
people from your town to China
Jim Hightower, April 26, 2002
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.
aloof and pampered executives who run today's 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."
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?
beast from Bentonville
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 conduct."
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,
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.
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."
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."
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 for retaliation."
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
for Wal-Mart's highly vaunted "code of conduct,"
NLC could not find a single worker who had ever seen or
heard of it.
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."
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
of Jim Hightower's writing can be found in his monthly
newletter, The Hightower Lowdown.