While Rome burns

To many of its customers (and even some employees), Wal-Mart is all heart, all sweetness, all light. Wal-Mart is a good neighbor. Wal-Mart hires local managers. Wal-Mart sells cheap. All good news, at least at the local level. After all, as of March 2000, Wal-Mart had become the nation’s largest private employer, with some 900,000 workers. And while wages at Wal-Mart are $2 to $3 an hour less than the average for the retail trades, and more than 600,000 Wal-Mart workers aren’t covered by the company’s health-insurance plan, that’s OK — because they have a great exchange policy, and I can get cheap sneakers there.

What is this mania for cheap? Why do people flock to discount stores to save money buying massive quantities of things they may not even need? Is it really necessary to keep a 10-gallon jar of pickles, a dozen boxes of ramen noodles, or a million M&M’s on hand?

Meanwhile, the owners of this quintessential peddler of the cheap are positively swimming in money. Each of the five Walton heirs (Jim, S. Robson, Helen, John and Alice) is worth $17 billion; their combined wealth beats Bill Gates’.

And decisions about what goes on Wal-Mart shelves loom large because, often, what doesn’t make it into the stores’ computerized inventories simply doesn’t make it, period. How many small mom-and-pop stores get the heave-ho because of Wal-Mart’s low prices? And who decreed that free choice should go by the board, leaving the Waltons to decide what flies and what doesn’t?

The first problem with Wal-Mart is its size. It’s so big that it positively begs to be the opening line of jokes, a la: “Just how big is Wal-Mart? Why, it’s so big that …” But it isn’t funny. Any company that has nearly 1 million workers in just one country, and a global network of stores, can behave pretty much as it pleases.

Up in Maine, for example, Wal-Mart racked up 1,463 violations of child-labor laws in the state’s 20 stores between January 1995 and June 1998, according to the Maine Department of Labor. State legislation restricts the number of hours minors can work, to prevent jobs from conflicting with school obligations. The violations involved minors working too early or too late, working too many hours a week, or t0o many days in a row, according to the Bangor Daily News. For these labor violations, the company was fined $205,605.

And here’s another heartwarming story. In April 1999, according to a National Law Journal article, a Texas state court hit Wal-Mart with an $18 million sanction for engaging in “a pattern of discovery abuse” — e.g., providing deceptive and incomplete evidence — in a parking-lot abduction and rape case. The judge held that Wal-Mart had never conducted a crime-prevention study for its parking lots, and had not disclosed similar lawsuits filed against it in the past.

Meanwhile, at the end of May, the French government called for the sale and breakup of Carrefour hypermarkets, whereupon Uni-Commerce (the global trade union for commercial workers) cautioned against selling the operations to Wal-Mart because of the gargantuan enterprise’s stifling effect on competition — and its poor track record as an employer.

And, around the world in Bangladesh, a group called the National Labor Committee reported on the allegedly dismal working conditions of the young women who make shirts sold by Wal-Mart. Forced to sew from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, and paid between 9 cents and 20 cents an hour, they’re denied health-care benefits and maternity leave, continually harassed to work faster, and even suffer the indignity of monitored bathroom visits, according to the NLC. And if they complain, maintains the group, they’re fired.

As for those mega-stores, Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, out in Hollywood, is spearheading a fight to block new Wal-Mart super-centers in the high-desert communities of Lancaster and Palmdale. After the Palmdale City Council voted to approve a Wal-Mart store on March 8, Local 770 organized a petition drive to force a referendum on the issue. More than 7,000 signatures were collected — way more than the 4,000 valid signatures required for a referendum. But on April 12, the city clerk notified the union that she was rejecting the petition, which she said was defective.

Local 770 has gone to court, arguing that the city is violating the free-speech rights of union members and residents alike. The union still hopes the issue will go before the voters.

Local 770 is also supporting another anti-Wal-Mart court action, this one in nearby Lancaster. Filed on behalf of a city resident, this suit contends that the city failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts before approving a Wal-Mart project there.

The suit argues that the combined effects of noise, air-quality impacts and traffic congestion from the retail development should have been reviewed in greater depth. The surrounding neighborhood includes homes, apartments and a private school.

Sound familiar, Asheville?

Today, it’s New York, Illinois, North Carolina — in fact, the entire United States of America (minus that wiseacre Vermont, which had the sense to keep Wal-Mart out); tonight, there’s Spain, Mexico and England.

And tomorrow? The world!

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