Retail behemoth Wal-Mart may have just been annointed king of the Fortune 500 for the fourth year in a row, but not all is well in discount land.
According to today's St. Petersburg Times, Wal-Mart is launching a new bare-knuckled counter-offensive to those who are "telling lies about us." As CEO Lee Scott told a confab of some 70 reporters gathered at the company's Arkansas headquarters this week,
"We were a small store once, too. We were able to innovate and use the economies of scale and volume buying to deliver the value our customers needed and wanted ... I can assure you that people who live paycheck to paycheck are thrilled when we come to town."
As much as I dislike Wal-Mart, this quote points to a very real issue progressives need to tackle. The fact is that Wal-Mart has been enormously successful in winning support from working-class and low-income communities in siting new stores. As a long-time labor activist recently pointed out to me, "You have to confront the fact that, for many working people, Wal-Mart's low prices are essential to their economic survival. And some who work at Wal-Mart say the jobs have saved their life."
I think this points to two key directions in terms of strategy for progressives. First is to keep focusing public education campaigns on how horrible Wal-Mart's jobs really are, drawing on reports such as Liza Featherstone's excellent book "Selling Women Short" (buy it here and a small cut goes to the Institute!). These jobs aren't only bad news for Wal-Mart employees, but they hurt all of us by forcing workers to depend on millions of tax-payer dollars worth of Medicaid costs, food stamps, and other public assistance to make ends meet.
Second, we need to offer economic alternatives. People's livelihoods are at stake, and folks who are struggling need to hear that progressives have practical proposals for bringing jobs, revitalizing communities, and lifting people out of poverty so they don't need to accept Wal-Mart's low, low prices -- which, we need to point out again and again, are only held down by exploiting workers at home and abroad and draining communities of their resources.