Sam’s World: How the Obama Era Will Transform Wal-Mart

Source: Nelson Lichtenstein, New Labor Forum, Vol. 18 no. 2, Spring 2009
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From the abstract:
There is nothing wrong with saving money in a deep recession. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart’s “Everyday Low Price” strategy is itself as much of a cause of as it is a solution to the economic woes now engulfing so many American consumers. This is because the retail revolution pioneered by Wal-Mart has always been based on a lot more than bar codes and satellite uplinks, good roads, powerful trucks, and distribution center wizardry.

Founder Sam Walton linked his company’s fortunes to the rightward shift in U.S. politics, social policy, and culture. Wal-Mart’s era of enormous growth coincided with the rise to power and influence of Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Jerry Falwell, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and the Bushes (father and son). These were the years of a global free trade unfettered by any social or environmental constraints, a minimum wage that shrank by one-third from its 1968 high, the rise of evangelical Protestantism–to which the company linked its distinctive work culture–and the destruction of both trade union power and much of American manufacturing capacity. In this environment, Wal-Mart and the rest of the big box retailers have thrived on the risk and instability that has been foisted onto their employees and suppliers. They churn their workforce, whipsaw their vendors, and have turned retirement pay and health care provision into a financial lottery for millions of workers. The 40-hour work week hardly exists: the retail economy relies on millions of part-time workers, while it is the norm for the few salaried staff members to stay on the job for many an extra hour, even as hourly workers find their lunch breaks and overtime pay stolen by hard-pressed store managers determined to make their labor budget hit the target generated by Bentonville’s computers.

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