and the Strip-Mining of America

excerpted from the book

Corporate Predators

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 Kmart) combined.

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 Retail Industry-Worldwide."

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 pay raise.

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 town's downtown."

Shelby Robinson, a self-employed clothing designer from Fort Collins tells Ortega that she "really hates Wal-Mart." Why?

"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 atrocious."

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 juggernaut.

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 writes.

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 Wal-Mart itself."

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