and the Strip-Mining of America
excerpted from the book
by Russel Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Common Courage Press, 1999
Walk into any Wal-Mart and marvel. One near us is open 24
hours. Never closes. Consumer goods as far as the eye can see.
Quality product at a low price. Friendly workers greeting eager
consumers at the door.
In 1997, Wal-Mart had sales of $118 billion and is on course
to become, within 10 years or so, the world's largest corporation.
Wal-Mart is three times bigger than Sears, its nearest competitor,
and larger than all three of its main rivals (Sears, Target and
Wal-Mart now has 3,400 stores on four continents. "Our
priorities are that we want to dominate North America first, then
South America, and then Asia and then Europe," Wal-Mart's
President and CEO David Glass told USA Today business reporter
Lorrie Grant recently.
And given the history of steady rise of the Bentonville, Arkansas
retailer, who would doubt it?
Certainly not USA Today, which last week ran Grant's glowing
review of Wal-Mart's worldwide operation under the headline: "An
Unstoppable Marketing Force: Wal-Mart Aims for Domination of the
But Bob Ortega, a Wall Street Journal reporter, reveals a
different side of the Wal-Mart phenomenon in his recently released
book, In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How
Wal-Mart Is Devouring America (Times Business, 1998).
Ortega documents how Sam Walton-perhaps the most driven corporate
executive ever to walk the face of the planet- built his empire.
Wal-Mart has used Asian child labor to make blouses for sale under
"Made in America" signs in his stores. When he began
his operation in Bentonville, Arkansas, Sam Walton hired a union-busting
attorney to quash worker organizing. Outer city Wal-Marts have
steam-rolled inner city shopkeepers.
Ortega speaks to Kathleen Baker of Hastings, Minnesota, who
was fired after talking with other workers about asking for a
He speaks to Mike and Paula Ianuzzo, of Cottage Grove, Oregon,
who blamed Wal-Mart for wiping out their photo-shop business.
In Guatemala, he interviewed Flor de Maria Salguedo, a union
organizer who arranged for Ortega to talk with workers making
clothes for Wal-Mart and other giant retailers.
Salguedo, whose husband was murdered during an organizing
drive in Guatemala City, was herself kidnapped, beaten and raped
shortly after Ortega left Guatemala City. After the attack, one
of her attackers told her, "This is what you get for messing
about with foreigners."
Ortega documents how communities around the country have revolted
against Wal-Mart's plans to plunk down giant superstores in their
communities, ripping apart the fabric of small town life.
In Oklahoma, the owner of a television and record store adversely
affected and eventually closed down after a Wal-Mart moved into
the area, told reporters, "Wal-Mart really craters a little
Shelby Robinson, a self-employed clothing designer from Fort
Collins tells Ortega that she "really hates Wal-Mart."
"Everything's starting to look the same, everybody buys
all the same things-a lot of small-town character is being lost,"
Robinson says. "They dislocate communities, they hurt small
businesses, they add to our sprawl and pollution because everybody
drives farther, they don't pay a living wage, and visually, they're
James Howard Kunstler, an ardent Wal-Mart foe from upstate
New York, talks about what he calls the $7 hair dryer fallacy.
Kunstler argues to Ortega that "people who shop at a
giant discounter to save $7 on a hair dryer don't realize that
they pay a hidden price by taking that business from local merchants,
because those merchants are the people who sit on school boards,
sponsor little league teams and support the civic institutions
that create a community."
Kunstler calls Wal-Mart "the exemplar of a form of corporate
colonialism, which is to say, organizations from one place going
into distant places and strip-mining them culturally and economically."
Ortega documents how communities around the country are rising
up to slap down Wal-Mart's plans at expansion.
But Ortega questions whether, given the amazing popularity
of Wal-Mart among consumers worldwide, anything will stop this
As Ortega points out, consumerism has not always held sway
on this soil. Back 200 years ago, in the United States, "one
did not shop for pleasure."
"The very idea of coveting goods ran counter to a broad
Puritanical streak in American society, and to its proclaimed
values of living simply, working hard (the famous 'work ethic'),
being thrifty, and seeking salvation through faith," Ortega
Ortega closes the book with a story of how Tibetans believe,
depending on their past actions, people can come back to other
realms besides this one.
"Among the worst of the realms is the realm of the hungry
ghosts-a place reminiscent of certain neighborhoods of Dante's
Inferno," he writes. "The hungry ghosts are the reincarnations
of people who were covetous or greedy in this life. In the realm
of the hungry ghosts, they are constantly ravenous but can never
be satisfied. They despoil and devour everything around them.
They consume endlessly and insatiably. It struck me immediately
as a metaphor for our own mass culture."
On April 6, 1992, Sam Walton died one of the wealthiest men
in America. Ortega says that he cannot presume to know where Walton
went after he passed on. "But I can't help but think, at
times, that his hungry ghost is still with us, in the form of
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