Legislating Wal-Mart

San Diego        Lee Scott, Wal-Mart CEO, was in Rogers, Arkansas, a long spit from their world headquarters in Bentonville, meeting the press.  Rick Smith, the head of WARN and WWA in Florida, and I were in northern San Diego County meeting with local leadership of some of California’s largest and most aggressive local unions of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).  He was laying down the gauntlet.  We were picking it up.

Scott at one point in some pique told the assembled journalists that, “…it is going to be tough to legislate Wal-Mart out of the community.” What a peculiar comment?  Changing employee health plans and co-pays and becoming “greener” had made it seem like the company was starting to understand it could not operate as an island unto itself, but had to join the community.  This one line spoken about their problems with state mandated health coverage initiatives also continues to be the headline for their corporate arrogance and refusal to practice good corporate citizenship in the community. 

If there was one theme that dominated the dialogue between WARN and the UFCW in San Diego County it was forcing Wal-Mart to play by the rules.  This is the challenge for the company.  They have developed a culture of complaint.  Rather than understanding that the laws are about protecting citizens, communities, and workers, Wal-Mart refuses to believe that it has to abide by the same standards, rules, and regulations that governs the rest of us and their competition.  We spoke at length with the locals and with Bill McDonough, the UFCW’s Organizing Director, in California about  a simple strategy of empowering communities to force the company to adapt its plans and strategies to corporate citizenship and respect for the rules. 

The problem with any lawbreaker unwilling to bend to community norms is that one had to increase the level of surveillance by the community and its governmental officials.  In simpler terms we have become the police and in the same way that communities clamor to hire more policeman to keep the streets safe, we are being forced privately to become the community police as researchers, organizers, and leaders take on the task of public safety in the face of corporate mayhem and riot.

In the evolution of Wal-Mart co-existence is going to have to mean making peace with the community either by entering into community benefit agreements that spell out the terms and conditions of corporate citizenship for Wal-Mart’s probation in a neighborhood, or by forcing them to work by the rules, which may mean that they can not enter a community.   That’s not “legislating out,” Lee, it’s forcing you to play by the rules, or take your marbles out of town.

Learn more about Wal-Mart Organizing Projects:
Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now (WARN)
Wal-Mart Worker’s Association (WWA)
India FDI Watch – A Campaign to Prevent Foreign Direct Investment in India and thus prevent Wal-Mart from stomping in

April 21, 2006

Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart
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