From the December 2006 issue of Socialism and Liberation magazine.
Many were surprised last February when Andrew Young decided to take a job as an advocate for Wal-Mart. His mission, as head of the corporate-funded “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” was to attempt to make Wal-Mart seem like a friendly corporation, responsive to the interests of poor communities both urban and rural.
People wondered how a former close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., could support a corporation that seemed to
Wal-Mart’s low prices depend on super-exploiting workers.
Photo: Charley Varley/SIPA
After all, Wal-Mart has a dismal record on workers’ rights. It pays wages often just above the minimum wage—well below the living wage in almost all localities but especially in urban areas.
The largest retailer in the world and second in corporate size only to Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart’s profits in the fiscal year ending January 2006 amounted to $11.2 billion. Despite its massive presence in the United States, with some 3,400 stores, Wal-Mart nevertheless is encountering growing opposition.
Urban centers have been the most resistant to Wal-Mart’s attempts to open stores. In Chicago, the city council passed an ordinance, later vetoed by the mayor, requiring Wal-Mart to pay a living wage. In Maryland, the largest retail corporation in the world was required to provide its workers with adequate health care benefits or to pay more into the state’s Medicaid fund.
When Young took the job, he towed the company line. Wal-Mart jobs “are some of the best entry-level jobs that are available to poor people,” he told the Associated Press on Feb. 27. “And they also make products available to the working poor.”
He came under criticism from many in the Black community for his role as a corporate spokesperson. On April 25, civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery and about 50 others signed a letter to Young charging Wal-Mart with a “history of breaking child labor laws” and “unethical” business practices. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 25)
It was not Young’s first role as a corporate spokesperson. His consulting firm, GoodWorks International, which Wal-Mart retained, took on its first client in 1997—the Nike Corporation. Nike was at the time targeted by advocacy groups for its reliance on sweatshop labor.
“The Nike job put Andy Young’s GoodWorks International on the map,” wrote Bruce Dixon in the March 2 edition of the Black Commentator. “Over the next few years, lucrative contracts walked in the door. Young cynically rented his ‘civil rights hero’ and philanthropist image out to oil and mineral extracting corporations in Africa, to bankers in the Caribbean and other interests on the Asian continent to paper over their atrocities.”
But Young’s role as Wal-Mart mouthpiece came to a screeching halt. During an interview in the Aug. 17 edition of the African American weekly Los Angeles Sentinel, he responded to a reporter’s question about whether Wal-Mart would drive “mom-and-pop” stores out of business.
“Well, I think they should,” Young told the Sentinel. “Those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables.”
“I think they’ve ripped our communities off enough,” he continued. “First it was the Jews, then it was the Koreans and now it’s the Arabs. Very few Black people own these stores.”
The comments provoked an uproar from groups like the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Muslim American Society and Jewish organizations. Young resigned as a Wal-Mart spokesperson the next day.
Young’s vulgar scapegoating was in many ways the logical outcome of Wal-Mart’s efforts to build support for the billion-dollar corporation in the oppressed Black community. The last resort of the ruling class to divert the interests of the oppressed is often an appeal to narrow nationalism. Young’s only mistake in the eyes of Wal-Mart owners was in his lack of sophistication in peddling the corporate line.
Of course, it is true that many small business owners in the Black community, most of whom are not Black, take advantage of the fact that African Americans have nowhere else to shop in order to exploit them economically.
A false contradiction
But Wal-Mart is certainly not the answer.
To truly satisfy both the consumers in the community and the workers requires examining the role that Wal-Mart plays in relation to the entire capitalist system. That is the only way to develop an orientation toward Wal-Mart and other corporate interests based on the real interests on the Black community, which is overwhelmingly working class.
It is no secret that times are getting rougher for working people in the United States. Some 46.6 million people live without health care. Thirteen percent of the population lives at or below the federal poverty line, according to the 2005 census. College is becoming more and more unaffordable for the average student.
Over the past five years, workers’ productivity has risen 16 percent while wages have only increased 7 percent. That means that corporations are exacting ever more profit from the average worker, extra money gained off the backs of the workers.
In this all-out offensive against workers, Wal-Mart has paved the way. Its aggressive anti-union techniques and hard line on keeping wages low pressure other companies to follow suit.
So how does Wal-Mart appeal to working class, especially rural, communities? The answer is obvious: low prices. The low prices are only partly the result of the low wages and benefits that the corporation pays its workers.
The secret to Wal-Mart’s success is large-scale sales and a massive nationwide distribution apparatus that allows inventory to be turned over rapidly. With high sales and rapid restocking, stores on the scale of Wal-Mart never have to worry about “stale bread” or “wilting vegetables” that characterize small-scale stores. The globalized production of consumer goods enables Wal-Mart to stock its shelves with items made by extremely low-paid workers employed by its suppliers.
Constant updating of the means of production and distribution mean that consumer goods that were once only found in specialty shops are now on shelves in the super-stores in rural Pennsylvania or Montana—all at “low, low prices.”
Of course, under capitalism this is accompanied by both the eradication of smaller competitors—the “mom and pop” shops—and the exploitation of the workers. Andrew Young’s corporate propaganda aside, Wal-Mart does not open up its super-stores for the benefit of poor communities or working families. It opens them to extract high, high profits.
For Black, Latino and poor white communities, Wal-Mart offers the promise of jobs and commodities where there is few of either. But this is the false hope offered by the whole capitalist system: that in order to enjoy a decent life, exploitation is inevitable.
Working class unity
In the short term, workers of all nationalities should rally around demands for better wages, benefits and union rights for all Wal-Mart workers and for all its suppliers’ workers. Those wages will provide better jobs and resources for workers and their families in the oppressed communities. Demands centered on the workers can unite communities of all nationalities, as opposed to the potentially divisive demands centered on Wal-Mart’s small business competitors or on U.S. workers versus “foreign labor.”
In the long term, Wal-Mart exposes capitalism’s false contradiction between some workers’ wages and other workers’ ability to purchase affordable goods. Under a socialist economy planned on the basis of workers’ needs instead of CEOs’ profits, affordable goods could be produced and distributed to all workers without relying on a super-exploited working class.
The Andrew Young Wal-Mart fiasco shows more clearly than ever: Multinational unity can only be achieved on the basis of a working-class program.