Politics. The Big Footprint. 07-11-2013

Walmart is an easy villain to identify. They are large. VERY large. Decisions made in their office in Arkansas have global impact. Their supply chain uses massive resources in manufacturing, shipping, and marketing. Their labor policies can arguably be held responsible for non-enforcement of safety standards which have resulted in tragedy and death, in the slow destruction of small local business, in the pollution of environments where there products are manufactured, as well as the toxic effects to the environment when storm run-off accumulates in poorly designed large paved spaces, sending eroded soil and storm-water through pesticide and fertilizer strewn garden departments, and off into local ground water supplies.

Most of these facts aren’t under dispute.

Right now, here in the Washington, DC area, the giant has run into an obstacle and has decided to stamp its feet. Based on its sizable footprint, and the amount of cash shoppers have in areas starved of retail opportunities, Washington, DC is now being seen as a lucrative and viable market. Walmart has decided to build 6 stores in an area equivalent to roughly 10 square miles. They are painting it as a contribution to under served communities and an action deserving of praise.

When a Walmart moves into the area, they price small businesses out of the market, which causes unemployment. Their placement in high-traffic areas exacerbate already dire traffic conditions.  Most notably, they hire large numbers of low-skilled workers, limit hours to below thresholds necessary to provide health insurance, and in essence create an additional drag on the local government economies, as Walmart employees then have to apply for public assistance to cover the gap between what they are paid and a living wage.

There is a cost for low-cost shopping.

For a long time, Walmart, the Walton Family, and its shareholders have been the beneficiaries of tactics which unfairly benefit them at the cost of the communities in which they open their stores.

Washington D.C. city council is trying its best in a small way to balance the equation by setting a living wage minimum for employees. It has voted and approved a measure that exempts other big-box stores, as they have Union-negotiated agreements which have allowed the employees to collectively bargain for the best wages available. Walmart has a history of resisting Union establishment and has fired workers in the recent past for attempting to Unionize.

Some may react to this by saying that Unions are greedy and lazy. The reality is that all employees deserve at least the bare minimums that Unions have been able to negotiate. Its been a slow process, but over time, somewhere in our society, the idea that people with the ability to make vast sums of money are in some way more valuable than people who are able to produce a tangible good or service has taken hold. This usually results in conditions where people who are making it feel free to bash the poor, rather than looking up the economic ladder where subsidies and wars of choice, and willfully stagnant wages have been shrinking the economic standards of the Middle Class for decades.

Societies run on everyday jobs and begrudging low-skilled workers pay that would allow them to have a residence, eat, pay for healthcare, transportation and child care is foolish in the extreme. Anyone who claims that people can just work harder and have choices for employment has never tried to find a job with a high school diploma and no work experience and tried to live on minimum wage. Even with roommates and holding several part-time jobs, minimum wage does not provide people with any quality of life or ability to climb out of poverty. Companies should also realize that people who receive a living wage are likely to spend it. Companies like Walmart should realize that a good part of the living wage they’d be obligated to pay, they’d get back from their employees who’d shop at their stores.

The mayor may well veto the council bill, and Walmart may get their way. I genuinely hope that he puts the rights of the worker over the rights of the Corporation, as big corporations really don’t need our help to survive. Regular low-wage earners need our help a lot more than Walmart with its tax breaks, its buildings full of lawyers and lobbyists, and its ability through economies of scale to cause its suppliers to nearly go out of business while Walmart continues to cut its costs, all so you the consumer can buy a 10-gallon jar of pickles for $5.

Walmart is a corporation. Corporations are not in the business to care, even if their marketing departments try to convince you otherwise. Corporations are in the business of growth and making money. Period. If we want Corporations to act responsibly and give back to their communities, we have to force them to do it, or make a point not to give them our money.

About gojohnego

Avid foodie and kitchen tinkerer, artist, news junky and political wonk, musician, blogger, naturist, dog-daddy, and owner of a kinky play-space. ...and did I mention I'm single ;)
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