Wal-Mart nation

You can’t blame Wal-Mart for being coy about its plans for a “Superstore” in Chico, as described in our cover story this week. The company knows from experience that it can avoid resistance to its plans by keeping them secret for as long as possible.

The irony is dazzling: Here’s the most successful retail company in the world, and it has to sneak into town to expand its store. It’s doing the same thing up in Red Bluff. Why the secrecy? Why is Wal-Mart so reviled?

Success and size naturally generate resentment, and Wal-Mart is the biggest guy on the block. It hasn’t gotten that way by being soft-hearted, either. In its determination to offer rock-bottom prices, it keeps labor costs way down, is relentless in its resistance to unions and is shameless about buying from overseas manufacturers whose working conditions often are miserable.

How bad is it? In the wake of raids made on its Arkansas corporate headquarters last week, federal officials charge that Wal-Mart honchos knew full well that its cleaning contractors were hiring illegal immigrants and paying them as little as $2 per hour. Talk about cheap.

But Wal-Mart wouldn’t be the success it is without all those customers looking for the best deals. The company knows that, as long as it can keep prices low, folks will flock to its stores.

In the meantime, communities are devastated. Mom-and-pop stores, unable to compete, go under. Companies that pay living wages are forced to cut salaries and benefits in order to compete. Low-wage workers go on Food Stamps and Medi-Cal, and taxpayers make up for Wal-Mart’s low prices.

We’ve come a long way from Henry Ford, who knew that, in order to create a market for his cars, he needed to pay his workers a living wage. Wal-Mart keeps its workers in poverty, so they can afford to shop only at Wal-Mart. And it’s able to do so because the rest of us, its customers, think only low prices matter.

Many people understand this, which is why they resist Wal-Mart so strenuously. But unless the rest of us begin to put other values—decent pay, the right to unionize, our community’s health—ahead of the desire to save a nickel on a buck, Wal-Mart won’t change.