RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Low-Price Bandit

Wal-Mart announced that its second-quarter sales in 2004 were lower than expected. By blaming unseasonable weather and lackluster Father's Day sales, the behemoth retailer avoided the truth: Consumers have figured it out. We're not shopping at the Big Box stores any more.

We've figured out that low prices for consumers mean low wages for workers, no benefits, outsourcing jobs, and environmental degradation.

And, it may turn out, the law will back us up.

In late June, a federal judge ruled that a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart will go forward as the largest civil-rights case against an employer in US history. It could affect 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees.

For years, we've heard the whispered stories that go like this: John and Mary applied at Wal-Mart the same day. He was offered a dollar more per hour than she was for the same job. Or, she had better credentials but he was offered the better job. With this case, the stories will come out.

For labor leaders, the lawsuit provides a new opportunity to organize. All the Big Box stores have benefited by hiring part-timers rather than full-time workers, then cutting hours when sales got slow. Now the main beneficiaries of this employment strategy, CEOs in the home office, will come under special scrutiny. Take Target CEO Robert Ulrich's pay package, for example: A salary of $1,571,925, and a bonus of $3.3 million. After he exercised his $17 million in stock options, the year's take was over $21 million.

But lest we feel smug, let's remember that consumers share the guilt with these home office bigwigs. We fed the 800-pound gorilla with our tacit agreement that as long as they delivered low prices we wouldn't look at their business practices. But now we're figuring it out.

Everyone loses when the low-price leaders refuse to supply health insurance or pay enough to cover child care and, instead, show employees how to bolster their puny paychecks by using social services provided at taxpayer expense.

As a final insult, the drive for lower prices means that suppliers who incur the cost of treating employees fairly can't compete with the cheaters. One by one, American manufacturers give up and go out of business or move their manufacturing offshore. So, while challenging the race-to-the-bottom, the lawsuit also issues a call to the dwindling number of consumers still going to the Big Boxes: Will we change our habits and buy from neighbors and independents, even if the prices are higher? Higher prices: Ah, there's the rub!

Our craving for low prices fuels the drive to social injustice and environmental degradation. Take that broccoli in the fridge. If you bought it from a Big Box Store, you bought it wrapped as if human hands had never touched it. Surprise! You bought from the system that shoves poor farmers off their land, cuts down the trees, burns the houses and plows up a monoculture.

Then, that system hires the people it displaced, and pays them barely enough to feed themselves and reproduce. With no education, no right to organize, no health insurance, the people have no hope of moving ahead, but the corporation insures itself of a compliant workforce for the next generations. And, to add insult, your tax dollars probably paid the corporation incentives to bring that broccoli into your community.

If, on the other hand, you bought from your neighbor, you participated in a system that allows the neighbor to set prices so s/he can raise a family, pay taxes, build your neighborhood, donate to a favorite non-profit, and buy something from you.

The buy-local phenomenon means more than only supporting your neighbor. You're also building a community, saving fossil fuels, and voting for choice in the future. Starting with the broccoli, you'll soon be supporting happy entrepreneurs who have started bakeries, restaurants, movie houses in your neighborhood. Take my word for it. It can work.

Probably the worst part of the race to the bottom is the lowering of standards for all employers. In Missouri, a recent survey revealed that 3% of full-time state employees qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. At the very bottom were the workers for the Department of Mental Health. Six-hundred-sixty-one of them, mostly the aides charged with the direct care of the most mentally fragile of our citizens, depend on state subsidies.

So, to review:

What does a business get when they deprive more than half their employees from raises and opportunities? Every day, low prices.

What does a business get when they threaten suppliers with extinction if the suppliers don't sell at the lowest possible cost, even off-shoring jobs to take advantage of poor workers in other countries? Every day, low prices.

Instead of a happy face, the low-price leaders should wear bandit masks when they bag your money at the cash register.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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