Wal-Mart = Law-Tram
By the end of this week, Maryland legislators will decide whether to force Wal-Mart to spend far more on health benefits for its workers.
But what's really being decided in Annapolis is whether to let Marylanders keep on lovin' Wal-Mart and its low prices, or to force state residents to see a connection between those low prices and the increasingly difficult lives led by Wal-Mart employees and the many other Americans whose jobs went bye-bye because of Wal-Mart's purchasing practices.
The social issue culture wars of the 1980s and 90s have quieted down and, but for gay marriage and evolution, pretty much gone away. What's now replacing them is the battle over America's biggest store, Wal-Mart.
So far, the big winner: the lawyers. After all, Wal-Mart spelled backwards is Law-Tram.
Reeling from a series of lawsuits stemming from its treatment of employees, the store's executives are eager to shut down the second front in the war against Wal-Mart--the state legislatures. Maryland's lawmakers last spring passed a bill that would require the largest employers in the state to meet certain thresholds in spending on health care for their workers. The way the bill was written, it applies only to Wal-Mart.
The argument for the bill is simple: By stinting on its healthcare spending, Wal-Mart forces the state to pick up the medical bills for those workers and their families. The state doesn't want to pay those bill; it wants employers to do right by their workers. Just under half of Wal-Mart employees are covered by employer-provided health insurance; other big employers average about 68 percent. A Wal-Mart confidential internal memo concluded that 46 percent of its workers' children are either uninsured or on Medicaid.
But Wal-Mart is fighting back, threatening to scratch plans to build a big distribution center on the Eastern Shore, hiring nine lobbyists (including the wife of a legislator) to work the Annapolis crowd, holding a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Gov. Bob Ehrlich, and mounting a PR campaign that's chockablock with near-truths. Example: A statement on walmartfacts.com, the company's propaganda outlet, says that "More than three-quarters of our associates have health insurance." But hold on, check out the rest of the sentence: "...whether through a company plan, a spouse's plan, or Medicare." So Wal-Mart apparently draws no distinction between health insurance it helps to pay for and insurance that workers go out and acquire on their own.
Wal-Mart's chief executive, Lee Scott, has conceded that the results of the political and cultural battle over his company will tell us a great deal about the direction of the country: "The question of how to assure that American capitalism creates a decent society is one that will engage all of us in the era ahead," he said earlier this year.
And we're now swimming in a veritable ocean of anti-Wal-Mart information and argument. To dive into that world of new books and movies and web sites, you'd think the nation was torn apart by the store's methods and effects. "We haven't equipped ourselves to manage" Wal-Mart, concludes Charles Fishman, author of a new book, "The Wal-Mart Effect." "That is the reason for our ambivalence, our appreciation and aversion, our awe and our nervousness, our confusion."
Fishman and other critics of the company see the behemoth as a force every bit as dominating and transforming as the car or the suburb. Wal-Mart, they say, requires us to think about whether we value cheap goods more than good jobs, to choose between buying everything in one place and retaining the Main Streets of small-town American mythology. Wal-Mart, they say, means having to decide which is more important: Letting one company reshape the national economy or asking government to make the rules about what our communities look like.
All of which makes sense if you're deep into the anti-Wal-Mart mindset. But that's not where most Americans are, not by a longshot.
A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that large majorities of Americans like Wal-Mart just fine. Not only do they love the low prices (81 percent say WM is a good place to shop), but they believe the store is "good for your area" (68 percent), "good for the country" (64 percent) and "good as a place to work" (56 percent.)
The anti-Wal-Mart political campaign is largely a product of union activists, yet Pew found equally strong supprt for Wal-Mart in union and non-union households.
Suprisingly, there's not even much of a culture gap on Wal-Mart. Seventy-six percent of families making more than $75,000 like WM as a place to shop, while 87 percent of families in the $30,000 and below income bracket feel that way.
And check this out: Even the dreaded seculars agree with God-fearing Americans that Wal-Mart is good for the country-- 58 percent of seculars and 73 percent of evangelical Protestants agree with that statement.
Given all that, will Maryland legislators vote to override Ehrlich's veto of the Wal-Mart health benefits bill? Should they?
In Maryland, Wal-Mart does not yet play quite the same role that it does in much of the country. There are cities in Texas where Wal-Mart owns nearly a third of the grocery business. In Virginia, Wal-Mart is already the state's largest private employer, as it is in nearly half the states. Yet there is no Wal-Mart in the District and only one in Montgomery County; none in New York City, either.
So in a way, Annapolis legislators are freer to take a stand against Wal-Mart than their counterparts might be in, say, Virginia.
But the obvious conclusion to all of the survey data is that even if Americans know that Wal-Mart wiped out their town's Main Street and shipped the manufacturing jobs to China and is stingy with its workers, man, the clothing in that place is cheap.
All anti-Wal-Mart anger aside, the fact is that the legislature has no business telling an individual company to spend more on its workers' health plans. This is a bill directed at a single company, and as such, it is both unfair and overbearing.
But it's perfectly right to pressure Wal-Mart to do right by its workers, and whether it's the unions or small business owners or ordinary citizens who take up that cause, it's a battle worth fighting.
And the good news is that time and the laws of economics have joined the anti-Wal-Mart campaign: In a new book, "Bigger Isn't Always Better," Washington business writer Bob Tomasko concludes that growth is "what Wal-Mart used to do." "Companies that successfully seek bigness soon find that their surroundings become less hospitable."
Tomasko compares Wal-Mart's current plight--it has pretty well tapped out the country's suburbs and is now venturing into big cities, where real estate is much more expensive and the store's low prices may no longer work as the sole identity of the store--to the old A&P Supermarkets, once the largest network of stores on the planet. A&P fell off the mountaintop because "market dominators like A&P are inherently poor adapters," Tomasko writes.
Their very size makes it difficult for them to sustain their business model. Wal-Mart's voracious appetite for raw materials, cheap labor and low-priced goods is already running into the fact of increasing pay scales in China and other Soon, Tomasko says, "no one will be available to make the things Wal-Mart sells."
Legislators can choose to pile on, doing the right thing for Wal-Mart workers while diminishing their own credibility by using the law as a weapon against a single business, however huge it may be. Or the folks in Annapolis could choose to sit back and wait for economic forces to take their course.
Natural forces are slower, of course, and in the meantime, many Maryland families struggle to get even basic health care. But a legislative solution lies in setting rules for all to follow, not in cleverly crafting a bill so that it hits but one entity.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Apostrophes Rock! | January 12, 2006 7:47 AM
Posted by: Fisher | January 12, 2006 8:09 AM
Posted by: Shalaya | January 12, 2006 9:21 AM
Posted by: John Nowicki | January 12, 2006 9:29 AM
Posted by: William | January 12, 2006 9:38 AM
Posted by: Vaughn | January 12, 2006 9:41 AM
Posted by: John Nowicki | January 12, 2006 10:05 AM
Posted by: ccm989 | January 12, 2006 10:14 AM
Posted by: Jacknut | January 12, 2006 10:15 AM
Posted by: s | January 12, 2006 10:28 AM
Posted by: CT | January 12, 2006 10:29 AM
Posted by: slangist | January 12, 2006 10:29 AM
Posted by: backspeller | January 12, 2006 10:33 AM
Posted by: Troy | January 12, 2006 11:01 AM
Posted by: bamagirlinVA | January 12, 2006 11:09 AM
Posted by: Chet | January 12, 2006 11:17 AM
Posted by: Mike | January 12, 2006 11:27 AM
Posted by: AG | January 12, 2006 11:35 AM
Posted by: Fred Biddle | January 12, 2006 11:57 AM
Posted by: Isabelle | January 12, 2006 11:58 AM
Posted by: Aaron | January 12, 2006 12:10 PM
Posted by: Hugh | January 12, 2006 12:10 PM
Posted by: trampus | January 12, 2006 12:27 PM
Posted by: Al | January 12, 2006 12:42 PM
Posted by: andy | January 12, 2006 12:54 PM
Posted by: Lefty | January 12, 2006 1:10 PM
Posted by: Dan | January 12, 2006 1:30 PM
Posted by: Howard | January 12, 2006 1:32 PM
Posted by: David | January 12, 2006 1:37 PM
Posted by: AG | January 12, 2006 2:05 PM
Posted by: jacobs2006.com | January 12, 2006 2:07 PM
Posted by: Tony | January 12, 2006 2:12 PM
Posted by: Greg | January 12, 2006 2:22 PM
Posted by: John Nowicki | January 12, 2006 2:32 PM
Posted by: Scott | January 12, 2006 2:48 PM
Posted by: NoTrump King | January 12, 2006 2:57 PM
Posted by: dt | January 12, 2006 3:26 PM
Posted by: Scott | January 12, 2006 3:40 PM
Posted by: Scott | January 12, 2006 3:42 PM
Posted by: AL | January 12, 2006 3:53 PM
Posted by: emb | January 12, 2006 4:03 PM
Posted by: chipfan | January 12, 2006 4:11 PM
Posted by: dt | January 12, 2006 4:20 PM
Posted by: tom | January 12, 2006 4:56 PM
Posted by: Paul S | January 12, 2006 5:08 PM
Posted by: delos | January 12, 2006 5:12 PM
Posted by: Greenspring | January 12, 2006 5:53 PM
Posted by: Vaughn | January 12, 2006 6:20 PM
Posted by: Fisher | January 12, 2006 9:48 PM
Posted by: John Driscoll | January 12, 2006 9:54 PM
Posted by: i4abuy | January 13, 2006 5:31 AM
Posted by: Pat Bergin | January 13, 2006 8:33 AM
Posted by: Paul S | January 13, 2006 9:15 AM
Posted by: Shaman | January 13, 2006 9:24 AM
Posted by: Karl Helmold, Jr. | January 13, 2006 9:43 AM
Posted by: rea | January 13, 2006 9:56 AM
Posted by: sciencegirl | January 13, 2006 10:37 AM
Posted by: Tony | January 13, 2006 6:52 PM
Posted by: dav | February 23, 2006 12:32 PM
Posted by: WalMart Drone | April 3, 2006 10:03 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.