Monday, July 02, 2012

Coming to Your Town, Quiety

To hear the folks at retail giant Wal-Mart tell it, they simply want
to help customers save money so they can live better. And when they
arrive to set up shop in your town, they promise they will be good
neighbors and work with the locals in developing their plans.

Well, now, who could take issue with a philosophy like that? A whole
lot of people as it turns out, including a group of citizens in
Altadena who recently were stunned to learn that Wal-Mart is opening
for business in their neighborhood.

There are a lot of reasons to object to Wal-Mart, which we will
discuss shortly. But if you know nothing else about the world’s
largest retailer, the fact that it feels a need to conduct its
business in secret would be enough to give you pause.

They did it in Altadena where the deal was done out of the public eye
with no airing of citizen concerns. They did it recently in Los
Angeles Chinatown where a new market will open over the objections of
the City Council who learned too late about the project to prevent
it. They did it in Simi Valley where they took over a vacant Mervyn’s
department store site with no public input.

No press releases, no confetti, no ribbon cuttings. Also, no
discussion nor dissent.

It’s all very legal. They take over an existing Conditional Use
Permit and move right in.

But what is there to hide? I’m guessing it’s their reputation.

On the surface, Wal-Mart’s plans to build a neighborhood market in
Altadena doesn’t seem like a big deal. It will cater to what Wal-Mart
likes to call “underserved communities” (read: no competition) and
will occupy the site of a former thrift store.

But invite Wal-Mart into your community, and a lot of baggage comes
with it.

Critics over the years have lashed out at Wal-Mart for mistreating
its employees, forcing them to endure poor working conditions while
paying low wages and offering inadequate health care.
Some of those views are supported by some startling statistics:

--- According to a report aired on PBS, approximately 70% of Wal-Mart
employees leave within the first year.

--- In 2000, Wal-Mart paid $50 million to settle a class-action suit
that asserted that 69,000 current and former Walmart employees in
Colorado had been forced to work off-the-clock.

--- Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once famously said, "I pay low wages.
I can take advantage of that. We're going to be successful, but the
basis is a very low-wage, low-benefit model of employment."

--- The retailer has steadfastly resisted any attempts to unionize
its workers.

That’s only part of the picture. Wal-Mart also has been accused of
predatory pricing practices intended to drive competition out of
business. There’s more: gender discrimination lawsuits, violations of
child labor laws, use of undocumented workers, exploitation of
sweatshop labor used by overseas suppliers.

You get the picture. These are not nice people.

Stung by the criticism, Wal-Mart over the years has launched major
public relations efforts in an attempt to spruce up its image as a
money-mad behemoth.

Sustainability initiatives, environmentalism, fighting hunger,
efforts to do more business with women-owned contractors and
suppliers. They would have us believe they are the embodiment of
benevolence and generosity.

For the sake of discussion, let’s take them at their word and assume
there has been an epiphany at Wal-Mart and that they have decided at
long last to become responsible corporate citizens.

We Americans are a forgiving lot. Do we now welcome them with open

Before you answer yes, consider the following. In April, the New York
Times disclosed that Wal-Mart had found credible evidence that its
Mexican subsidiary — the retailer’s biggest foreign operation, which
opened 431 stores last year — had paid more than $20 million in
bribes and that an internal inquiry into the matter had been
suppressed at corporate headquarters in Arkansas.

In addition to being morally reprehensible, Wal-Mart’s actions could
be a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Times reported that a senior
associate at a lobbying firm hired to help bring the Wal-Mart grocery
store to Chinatown abruptly left the firm after it was revealed that
she had infiltrated a news conference held by a group critical of
Wal-Mart and posed as a reporter.

Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told the Times that her actions
were "unacceptable, misleading and wrong."

"Our culture of integrity is a constant at Wal-Mart, and by not
properly identifying herself, this individual’s behavior was contrary
to our values and the way we do business," he said.

With a straight face.

It would seem little has changed in the Wal-Mart saga. In the meantime, Wal-Mart is not going away. They have major plans to move into urban areas throughout the country and set up shop wherever they can.

Let’s hope next time someone is watching the store.

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