Wal-Mart, Race & Gender: Local Controversies, Global Process
The Wal-Mart, Race & Gender: Local Controversies, Global Process was held on January 21st 2006 at the University of Chicago. It was an opportunity to put the many-faceted struggle against Wal-Mart—and the nature of the corporation itself—into context.
Organized by the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and the Center for Gender Studies, the "symposium drew about 250 people into a mostly sober discussion of the Wal-Mart menace, and the particularities of how it impacts the various groups it seeks to crush or coopt— the kind of conversation that is sorely needed by all who claim to be “movement” people."
Young Sam built his first stores in what he considered the “magic circle” centered in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, according to University of California at Santa Barbara professor Nelson Lichtenstein. Walton exploited the pools of “surplus labor” that resulted from corporate agricultural consolidation and the ravages of the Thirties dustbowl. Desperate to keep their land, surviving small farmers—and their wives—turned to wage labor.
Wal-Mart is not some unique product of the Ozarks. Rather, it is the end result of a long history of retailers seeking ever-increasing shares of the market and dominance over the companies that actually make the products. “Wal-Mart is not unusual in basing cheap goods on low wages,” explained Susan Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware. Nor is its fabled inventory management system something new under the sun. Since the late 19th Century, Woolworth, Sears, A&P and others “established mechanized systems…among thousands of manufacturers and millions of customers.”
The University of Chicago’s Mae Ngai, also a professorm of history, explored the notion that “if Wal-Mart raised the price of every item by just one cent, it could provide good health care for all employees.” This seems to be an “argument” raised by lots of union folks, and others. But is it an argument at all, or just rhetoric that diverts attention from the true nature of the beast (which can never be a good thing to do with one’s fellow strugglers)?
Annette Bernhardt’s New York-based Brennan Center for Justice “does a lot of Wal-Mart work,” she told the crowd. Wal-Mart has “crystallized the problem for the public”—the problem being working people remaining in poverty—but, “It’s a mistake to collapse all of this just to Wal-Mart, both analytically and strategically.” Wal-Mart, in its determination to oppress everyone, has also earned the largest class action suit in U.S. history, brought by female employees. Bernhardt predicts a slew of African American suits against the corporation, soon, but cautions that, “Even if Wal-Mart and others never discriminate on the basis of race and gender [this model] would hurt women and people of color” because they are bad jobs.
The issue “goes beyond whether Wal-Mart is a good or bad employer,” said Steven Pitts, a labor specialist with the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. There is a “crisis in the Black community…. We need a movement for quality jobs.” Pitts is one of the authors of the study, “Beyond Wal- Mart: The Need for Quality Jobs in Black America.” “There is a crisis of unemployment, but equally important, there is a crisis of bad jobs in the Black community.” Pitts had earlier distributed charts showing the disproportionate distribution of “bad” jobs among Blacks in the Bay Area and Chicago.
“Wal-Mart uses people as a pimp does,” said Rev. Reginald Williams, of Trinity United Church of Christ, to enthusiastic applause. “We want jobs that will add to the life of the community.” It is the beginning of a general demand that requires a whole community be addressed as citizens. The logic of such a demand can only be satisfied through a campaign for institutional community empowerment—a much broader concept of democracy.
Rev. Williams: “Price over Principle equals Prostitution.” From the faith-based perspective of the social gospel, Wal- Mart is bad for the West Side, said Rev. Elce Redmond, of the South Austin Community Coalition. Wal-Mart is lying to the people—disrespecting them—with its promises to hire convicted felons and young people from the immediate neighborhood. “Hire young people? Not the ones hanging on the corner, not those kids.” Rev. Williams said Wal-Mart had poisoned the discussion by painting “all unions as bad, racist, based on the records of the building trades.” It is true that the building trades are a heavy cross to bear. Maybe too heavy.
“We allowed Wal-Mart to frame the issue as Wal-Mart versus the unions, rather than Wal-Mart versus the community,” said James Thindwa, of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “They spent a lot of money to break up our coalition. We had not anticipated that Wal-Mart would use its clout…and pay off the opposition. Frankly, we didn’t realize the depth of the leadership crisis in the Black community.”