Wal-Mart casts a global shadow across the lives of hundreds of millions of people, whether or not they ever enter a Supercenter. With $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart is so big, and so obsessively focused on cost-cutting, that its actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, transport and communication, politics and culture, and the organization of industries from retail to manufacturing, from California to China.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the most eye-catching graphic in the Wal-Mart annual report was the “measles map” of the United States, in which each dot represented a company store or distribution center. At first, they were all clustered in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, Wal-Mart’s home turf, but then, year by year, the map charted a seemingly inexorable, disease-like spread as state after state became densely covered with scores of little black dots. The Midwest and South were largely dot-filled by the end of the 1980s; New England and much of the Pacific Coast were spotted less than a decade later. Soon, more than 4,000 dots filled the U.S. map, taking up almost every available space.
It’s hard to say what Wal-Mart’s top executives were thinking when they decided to expand the chain to Germany in 1997. Germany, after all, was a nation where retail establishments were actually regulated—indeed, stores, by law, were closed on Sundays. In Germany, management is required to meet regularly with employee councils, most major employers are unionized, and pay-scales are set by sectoral labor-management contracts that apply to all large employers.
Employees at Chicago's first Wal-Mart (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
"Be very careful who you let into your neighborhood," Sandra Carpenter, a former Wal-Mart grocery manager from Maryland, warned New Yorkers considering whether to bring Wal-Mart to their town. "They will promise you everything under the sun," she said at a recent anti-Wal-Mart rally outside New York City Hall, "but at the end of the day, they will take it all back."
Wal-Mart's high-profile effort to expand into some major urban markets has suddenly cast a spotlight on the experiences of Wal-Mart workers like Carpenter and launched a battle that both Wal-Mart and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the union that represents grocery workers, badly need to win.