By KATHY WATSON
Special to the News
It is understandable that Hood River Wal-Mart employees would be concerned about their jobs, and so I read with empathy the story that appeared in the June 15 Hood River News.
In it, employees and a Wal-Mart spokesperson talked glowingly about the jobs Wal-Mart offers, about its community involvement, and its provision of inexpensive merchandise, aiding families and seniors with limited incomes.
Yes, it’s great that Wal-Mart employees treat each other like family, and support each other during hard times. Knowing the citizens of Hood River as I do, I would expect that many of us could tell similar stories about our co-workers; many of us love our jobs; many of us would be distressed to lose them.
But that’s not the end of the Wal-Mart story. It isn’t just a great job opportunity, and a cheap place to shop. In this vast, interconnected world marketplace, Wal-Mart is driving the American standard of living down. It is not, like many other companies, creating opportunity. It is stopping cold opportunity for many millions of Americans. It is exploiting world trade, which I once believed could bring prosperity to all the world’s people. Today’s Wal-Mart employees need to understand the flip side of their jobs.
Here’s how it works. Start by thinking of your friends and the work they do. How many of them actually make anything? Think about your toaster, the shirt you’re wearing right now, the telephone you use, the shoes on your feet. Many years ago, Americans made those things at decent wages. Now, most manufacturing is done overseas. In fact, only 17 percent of what Wal-Mart sells is made in America, even though they try to wrap their company in red white and blue patriotism. Because they manufacture it overseas where labor is cheap (or free, in the case of Chinese prison labor), Wal-Mart and other retailers can sell it for less. Always.
Yes, other retailers, too. Locally owned retailers, who are desperate to complete with big box stores, also pay low wages and sell imported goods. So, people wonder, what’s the difference? Research by the National Trust for Historic Preservation showed that 6 cents of every dollar spent at a big-box chain store stayed in town, whereas 60 cents of every dollar spent at a locally owned store stayed in town — to circulate through other merchants, providing some redeeming value to the community, and creating a circle of other jobs.
The nasty flip side to low-cost foreign imports is that thousands and thousands of Americans lose their jobs because of them. And they become poorer. The jobs they can find are now not in family-wage manufacturing, but in low-wage retail, such as Wal-Mart. And as Americans become poorer, and survive on lower paying jobs, many extend their meager incomes by shopping at ... you guessed it: Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart now owns 7 percent of the U.S. retail market, and 20 percent of the grocery market, and it is expanding rapidly. It is the largest corporation in the world. Its success can be placed squarely on the back of U.S. consumers who have been willing to export their jobs and their neighbors’ jobs overseas in the search for a good deal. Wal-Mart employees, who are just happy to have a job, don’t realize they are merely pawns in Wal-Mart’s race to the bottom.
Ironically enough, our own pear, apple and cherry growers in the Hood River Valley know this scenario all too well. The importation of foreign fruit, grown by lower-priced labor and without environmental protections, is causing orchardists to tear up their trees and throw up their hands.
And yet, when Wal-Mart woos them, offering to buy local fruit (at least while their application is pending before Hood River County), they forget that it is the overall practices of companies like Wal-Mart that are destroying their livelihood.
In fact, we have so come to expect Wal-Mart’s predatory practices that we grovel at the chance to finally have some American fruit in their grocery stores.
But don’t expect Wal-Mart to suddenly become enlightened and to buy locally. Not with Wal-Mart and other mass retailers building more than a store a day across the U.S., driving out competition, and controlling our purchases, our jobs, our very lives.
And when Wal-Mart meets its planned penetration, when it builds a SuperCenter every 10 miles, and a smaller store between each SuperCenter, Wal-Mart employees should ask themselves what happens then. When a majority of wages and retail prices are in Wal-Mart’s control, we can expect them to do what behooves them as the world’s largest corporation: wages will fall, and prices will go up. Who would stop them? It’s simply economics. Wal-Mart will sell you out for less. Always.
Now, I don’t think Wal-Mart employees should slink off in shame for participating in their employer’s vicious cycle.
But I do think this complicated world requires a bit more thought than simply a heartfelt paean to inexpensive goods and minimum wage jobs, where full-time is pegged at 28 hours. As Wal-Mart expands, we all lose. Even today’s happy Wal-Mart employees.
Kathy Watson is the former Editor-in-Chief of Oregon Business magazine. She and her husband Stuart have lived in Hood River for two years, and are partners in Watson x 2, a communications and economic development consultancy.