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Ralph’s Appeal

Jan
19
2004

Someone asked me at a party last week who I’d pick to run Wal-mart, pointing out that the company’s economics — $2.2 billion in sales, a market cap of over $225 billion with 1.2 million employees in the U.S. alone – make it, economically speaking, a small country.
My nominee? Ralph Nader. I was promptly chastised for my bad judgment. As president of Wal-mart, Nader would be terrible for the company’s bottom line. Well, I said, that’s the idea.
Wal-mart certainly behaves as though it’s a sovereign nation, one not subject to the usual laws. Wal-mart talks to customers about supposedly ethical behavior – it won’t sell some kinds of racy magazines or videos or music that violates its ‘family values’ standards, for instance – but doesn’t seem too bothered by the idea that it should comply with U.S. laws when it comes time to compensate its employees.
The allegations of illegal behavior just keep coming.
Wal-mart’s being sued in several states for failing to pay workers for over-time and, in some cases, for time worked. It’s wages run about $6.50 a hour for most rank and file and there are additional reports or workers going without breaks (mandated by law) or being forced to clean up stores – after they’ve closed – off the clock. Wal-mart denies the allegations and is fighting them in the courts. A few months ago, raids at several Wal-marts across the country turned up allegations that many of the janitors working at the stores were illegal aliens, paid well below minimum wage. The company says it knew nothing about illegals, blaming the sub-contractors it hires for cleaning. On Sunday, The NYTImes, ran a front page story about the stores’ policy of locking employees in stores for the evening. Wal-mart said it only did this in “high crime” neighborhoods – about 10 percent of its stores – for its worker safety. That makes you wonder how stores managers didn’t know that janitors – who normally work at night – were illegal. But, more seriously, it calls up images of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, a famous, turn of the 19th century fire in New York where girls sewing shirtwaists were killed as fire swept through their factory. The site of young girls jumping from windows to escape the first and smoke — fire escapes and other exits doors had been locked to keep the girls at work — haunted many witnesses. Public outcry led to the creation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and caused a series of reforms – building code inspections among them – in New York City where the factory was located.
But it’s hard to see any sort of movement coalescing around Wal-mart, isn’t it?
Why? Business-like thinking has simply over-taken every aspect of American life. In these “brand of you” days, it seems, everyone is a businessperson with an eye on the bottom line. That thinking helps places like Wal-mart. And it hurts employees. Take a look at the long-standing grocery store strikes in Southern California. Workers aren’t picketing the front of the stores – where customers’ enter – they’re just protesting at the loading docks. Unions say that’s because they don’t want to “confuse” customers. More likely, it’s because they realize they won’t get much sympathy, something unions have traditionally relied on when it comes to picketing.
What’s worse is that Ralph Nader, an aging Lefty if there ever was one, is the only public figure who regularly criticizes the Wal-mart mentality. And Nader, for all his good intentions, doesn’t have any new ideas that set what could be a new agenda of the Left apart from the old, tired, agenda of the Left. It’s a problem and it’s one that can’t be blamed entirely on the Bush administration.
A clue to how pervasive market-driven thinking has gotten was, by coincidence, provided by the NYTimes magazine on Sunday. In a piece – a book excerpt – writer David Shipler, talked about how one woman’s problems juggling her job and the care of her disabled daughter might have been easily resolved:
“Perhaps the most curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle was everybody’s failure to pursue the most obvious solution: if the factory had just let Caroline work day shifts, her problem would have disappeared. She asked a supervisor and got brushed off, but nobody else — not the school principal, not the doctor, not the myriad agencies she contacted — nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace…it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.”

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