Opposing Wal-Mart: Lessons from a history of resistance
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest and most profitable retailer, is searching for new spaces to expand and generate profit. The company already operates around 3,000 stores in the United States, and these are mostly in rural areas. With rural US markets nearly saturated and profit potential maximized, Wal-Mart has recently turned towards markets in major US cities, places where it has yet to build a profitable foundation. Outside of the United States Wal-Mart similarly trying to crack open cities in emergent countries like India so that it can fill them with bulk purchased, mass produced commodities.
Wal-Mart’s atrocious practices and company policy are well documented, and based on the company’s history we feel that there is reason to be concerned about its plans for expansion. In the US, the Wal-Mart staunchly opposes organized labor and maintains a strict control over its supply chains. This control has enabled Wal-Mart to drastically cut labor costs and dictate the prices it will pay for the products it purchases. These cuts are born by the workers and their families. In the rural US, Wal-Mart’s practices have led to a pauperization of many communities, after which Wal-Mart is the sole employer and retailer supplying vast rural geographies. The retail reforms currently being pushed by India’s Congress Party to allow foreign direct investment into retail sectors represent a danger to India’s small farmers and informal food vendors. Couched in the language of “quality,” we are concerned with the social changes the company will try to impose at it seeks to grip the agricultural supply chain in India from field to shelf, trying to pay as little as possible.
Over the past decade, labor unions, religious groups, small businesses, community organizations, and ordinary people in the US have resisted Wal-Mart’s entry into major cities. In 2006 Chicago’s first Wal-Mart store opened after a bitter struggle that began with Wal-Mart’s proposal for a store on the cities impoverished West side. The proposed location was the site of a disused industrial steel manufacturing plant. Steel manufacturing thrived on Chicago’s west and south sides until steel industries deserted the city, leaving plants vacant and surrounding communities deprived of employment, retail space, tax dollars, and schools. The west side neighborhood was a retail desert by the early 2000s, and many of those who supported Wal-Mart’s proposal expressed their agony over traveling to nearby neighborhoods simply to shop for basic needs. This was, understandably, a dire problem for the west side, but opponents to Wal-Mart’s proposal , such as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and religious leaders Jessie Jackson and Jeremiah Wright, argued that using Wal-Mart and low-wage employment as a solution for the neighborhood’s economic problems was akin to bringing slavery to Chicago.
With such obstacles put in its way, Wal-Mart utilized a variety of tactics to divide and conquer its opponents. Wal-Mart sent executives to public meetings who cited bible verses in an effort to win allies among the neighborhood’s influential church-going community. Wal-Mart also promised to hire between 75 and 80 percent of its staff from the labor pool of local black residents. These tactics, however, were relatively minor when we consider the massive public relations resources the company mobilized for its campaign. Wal-Mart hired an army of consultants who polled Chicago residents using an immense phone-banking operation. Anyone who supported Wal-Mart’s proposal was immediately transferred to leave a message with their local alderman alderman’s (city council member) office in support of the proposal. The opposition did not have the financial resources to undertake such a massive campaign. Finally, Wal-Mart antagonized Chicago’s racial tensions by pitting black union-supporting and anti-union alderman against each other. In the end, Wal-Mart’s divide and conquer strategy, made possible by its massive mobilization of resources and clever public relations maneuvers, won over the city council. Wal-Mart is still expanding in Chicago, even though studies by the University of Illinois at Chicago show that Wal-Mart’s effect on Chicago neighborhoods has been economically disastrous, driving away more jobs than it created.
Community organizers, activists, city council members and small-business owners in New York have had hindsight in their favor; they have thus far been successful in keeping Wal-Mart out of New York City. Just this year Wal-Mart pulled out of a plan to build a store in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, but the company is investing huge sums of money into city programs and opened offices in Manhattan. Local business owners and community organizers are linking forces to resist the “Wal-Martization” of the city (www.walmartfreenyc.com).
The power of the Wal-Mart Empire is maintained through cheap prices and through the control Wal-Mart exercises over the entire supply chain. In the past few months mobilizations against Wal-Mart erupted all along Wal-Mart’s supply chain—from manufacture to retail shelf. In September and October workers at a distribution centers under contract with Wal-Mart went on strike in a coordinated effort that offers a new model for organizing against corporate conglomerates. On October 4th, several dozen retail workers in California walked off the job demanding better pay, working conditions, and regular working hours. 250 workers rallied in front of a store in Pico Rivera. Workers at a Wal-Mart supplier in Elwood, Illinois went on strike on September 15th, demanding improvements in workplace safety.
Chicago police officers in riot gear were eventually sent to the factory, but the strike ended peacefully when the supplier conceded to the striker’s demands. In September, warehouse workers in Southern California also went on a 15 day strike. Retail workers in Seattle, Dallas, and Washington also went on strike. These strikes have so far been small, only a few hundred workers in total, but they were coordinated by organizations funded by but not directly controlled by labor unions. Considering Wal-Mart’s history of ruthless union busting, the strikes represent an important moment in anti-corporate resistance, also a useful lesson for others seeking to halt the expansion of multi-national corporations.
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