Editor’s Note: The following is a response to a piece by Alex Hoogland that appeared in November’s edition of the Washington University Political Review. That article may be read in its entirety here.
Alex Hoogland contends that Walmart is good for America. He points out that Walmart employs millions of people and delivers inexpensive goods to American consumers. To be fair, Walmart does “save” Americans money, and yes, clearly American consumers want the benefits (cheap goods) the store provides. I don’t want to downplay the fact that Walmart has financially benefited a great deal of Americans.
But Hoogland brushes off the more significant problems that Walmart causes. By muscling out all its competition, Walmart has killed thousands of businesses across America, costing people their livelihoods and obliterating small towns. Many people don’t realize that small town America no longer exists. It has been slowly strangled by the strong grip of large industries, and Walmart is the worst culprit. Ghost towns and abandoned corpses of former business litter the main street of almost every small town in America. These communities have had their jobs, stores, and vitality drained by the corporate money vacuum. People in these towns either find themselves unemployed or are forced to work for Walmart, two options that are almost equally bad.
That’s because Walmart’s business plan involves exploiting their workers, draining them for all they are worth. The company pays terrible wages (below cost of living), often forces employees to work overtime, and is infamous for prohibiting workers from organizing. Worker “medical benefits” are virtually non-existent and employees who miss work, even for legitimate reasons, can be fired on the spot without severance. This is part of the reason why Wall-Mart has been so successful; the company is willing to exploit its workers to the fullest. To take this a step further, Americans should understand that the cheap prices at Walmart come not just from economies of scale but from the backs of the workers themselves. It is a system by which many Americans save a little money at the expense of serious hardship to a few.
2.1 million people are trapped working for Walmart, deprived of any other options. Although this claim seems to beg presumptions, the reality is almost any job would pay better and be less demanding than one at Walmart.
Hoogland tries to paint Walmart as an altruistic organization that looks out for the good of the US. He point out that the company gave $20 million worth of goods to the hurricane Katrina relief effort. But this act was nothing more than a slick public relations move on the part of CEO Lee Scott Jr. Can anyone really believe that a man who is willing exploits millions of workers for profit is a great humanitarian, let alone one who is ready to damage his bottom line for the greater good? Of course not! What does make sense is that the crafty businessman saw in Katrina a fantastic opportunity to improve the company’s public image. In 2005 Walmart was facing a growing number of boycotts increasingly negative publicity due to its mistreatment of workers. On top of that, the anti-Walmart documentary The High Cost of Low Price was about to be released that November. $20 mil was a bargain for the good press the company received.
Walmart engages in this sort of deception all the time. Think of those smarmy Walmart commercials that show a smiling employee explaining how important it is to save you money. Now think of the last time you actually saw a happy employee working at Walmart. I bet you can’t.
None of this is to say Walmart is not capable of being a force of good. The company is big enough now that they could pay decent wages without losing their competitive edge. But the current strategy of muscling out the little guy and exploiting every available opportunity does more harm than good to America.