Methodists take on Wal-Mart

As the American economy continues to sour and people look for scapegoats, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the country’s largest private employer, is becoming a common punching bag. Even the Methodists, or at least some of them, are lining up to take a shot at the Bentonville, Ark.-based business.

A public forum held at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Chico on March 21 attracted about 35 people, including four or five Wal-Mart workers, a three-member panel speaking against the company and members of the congregation who were pretty well split as to the effect Wal-Mart’s growing presence has on various aspects of our society.

The forum was triggered by a recent decision by the Methodist Regional Conference to draft a resolution against the mega-store. In response, Trinity’s church and society committee recommended supporting the resolution and advising its congregation not to shop at Wal-Mart.

The store has attracted local attention because of its plans to expand existing stores in Chico, Red Bluff and Willows into supercenters, build a new store on The Esplanade in north Chico where a golf course now sits, and possibly construct a store on the Skyway at the entrance to Paradise.

It’s hard to say if that last one is for certain—the company likes to fly under the radar—but Wal-Mart foes aren’t taking any chances.

Leslie Johnson, who heads the church committee, said no representatives from the store had been invited because “Wal-Mart has a lot of money to get their message out.”

The three members of the panel, all speaking against Wal-Mart, each gave about a 15-minute talk on the damage the company can create.

Mike Gentry, local representative for and 22-year-member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, called Wal-Mart, which employs 1.4 million people, “the most resistant, anti-union company I’ve ever dealt with.”

He said less than 40 percent of Wal-Mart employees have health insurance, and the average yearly gross wage, though the figure might be dated, is $11,648. By contrast, he said, the workers he represents support the community by buying houses and cars and other big-tax items.

He said Wal-Mart has been hit with a class action discrimination lawsuit with one million plaintiffs which charges that women are paid less by Wal-Mart and lag behind in promotions. He said there are charges that Wal-Mart forces overtime and makes people work off the clock. And 28 hours, he said, is considered full time by Wal-Mart.

The real problem, Gentry said, is that as more Wal-Marts are built good-paying jobs are lost. He said that, since 1992, 13,000 supermarkets have closed in America.

Mike McLaughlin is chairman of the Save Our Gateway committee, which is working to stop the construction of a large shopping center—316,000 square feet—from being constructed in or next to Paradise on the Skyway.

A few weeks ago the Paradise Planning Commission denied the approval of the center, passing its fate onto the Town Council.

McLaughlin said building a massive big-box retail on the outskirts of town will doom the middle of town, “creating economic havoc” and closing mom-and-pop-type stores. He said problems include a greater demand on an already tight water supply, increased wastewater and heavy traffic. The store plans call for 1,425 parking spaces, more than the total of the three existing markets on the Ridge.

Michael Perelman, economics professor at Chico State University, made an initial disclaimer: “I’m not gonna paint Wal-Mart as an evil empire.”

He said the company is simply taking the free-market system to a logical conclusion, meaning it now controls sales of up to 30 percent of the U.S. market for certain products, such as shampoo and soap, books, magazines and CDs. Such control, he said, gives the store enough leverage to censor should the company’s top brass object to content.

Wal-Mart is not all bad, he said, pointing out it saved its customers an estimated $20 billion in 2002. The problem, he explained, is the enormous hidden costs it throws onto the taxpayers in the form of public assistance for employees forced to live below the poverty line.

He also mentioned Wal-Mart’s relations with China, where 80 percent of its suppliers are now based, making it that country’s fifth-largest trade partner ahead of Great Britain and Germany. (Fortune Magazine has just named Wal-Mart the world’s top revenue-grossing company, bringing in some $270 billion last year.)

After a short break, members of the audience got their chance to speak. The first to do so was Beth Hori, an hourly manager at the Chico Wal-Mart, who said she makes $30,000 per year.

She said Wal-Mart’s average wages were deceptively low because hers gets mixed “with the 19-year-old kid who works for $7 an hour in the Garden Department.” She said she gets health insurance and that a lot of the part-timers are college students who can use the university clinic for their health needs.

And while she agreed that some of the part time employees are single mothers on Medi-Cal, she added. “We didn’t invent teenage mothers.”

If Wal-Mart is guilty of anything, she said, it is for not fighting back against its critics.