reality, Wal-Mart was simply leading the way down a road
that Safeway and Kroger would soon be traveling, anyway. "Wal-Mart
made us look at ourselves and reinvent ourselves," said
Dick Tillman, an executive in charge of five southern states
for the Kroger chain, in an interview with the Wall Street
Journal, last year.
Let’s make it plain:
The problem is not that there is too much competition in the
retail food business, even of the cutthroat, Wal-Mart kind.
Rather, the chains have loaded themselves down with debt to
eliminate the previously existing competition, and there are
not enough customers with enough income to buy enough goods
to pay off creditors and satisfy the ever more ravenous demands
of investors at the same time. So they decided to cut labor
costs by forcing a strike and lockout of United Food and Commercial
Workers (UFCW) members throughout southern California. Wal-Mart
provided the excuse to do what comes naturally to the corporate
class in George Bush’s America. Wal-Mart is leader of the pack,
but they are all wolves.
is correct to say that the UFCW strike is a “Wal-Mart strike,” in the sense that
Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger have chosen to “re-invent” themselves
as Wal-Marts – and with the ferocity of the newly converted.
However, it would be unwise to treat Wal-Mart as some uniquely
villainous entity. The Bentonville, Arkansas corporation is
simply more aggressive and self-consciously ideological than
its boardroom counterparts. But it is not another species.
Wal-Mart’s corporate “personality” operates according to the
same imperatives as the rest of the pack, who are far more
admiring of their leader than resentful.
solidarity means the owners share a common war chest. There
is not even a pretense
of corporate competition when it comes to making war on workers.
From the moment the first UFCW picket lines went up at Vons
and Pavillion stores, in October, the companies have shared
revenues to compensate for strike losses. The arrangement is
legal, they claim, because the chains all have contracts with
the same union. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has
filed an antitrust suit charging revenue sharing hurts consumers. "This
action is about protecting shoppers against unlawful, anticompetitive
conduct that keeps prices artificially high," said Lockyer.
The companies have, in effect, suspended competition to engage
in price-fixing, from which all of them benefit. The suit contends
the agreement "essentially freezes the pre-strike market
money changes hands, according to equity analyst Andrew Wolf.
deter shoppers from Safeway and Albertsons locations, but traffic
is heavier at Krogers-owned stores, then "Kroger would
actually write checks to the other two," said Wolf.
lost nearly $700 million in the last quarter, but only $100
to the strike, say company executives – and some of that was
covered by revenue sharing. Yet Safeway’s stock rose 70 cents,
last week. How could that be? Because Wall Street is rooting
for the home team, home being anyplace where corporate diktat
is challenged. When issues that really matter to the corporate
class are at stake, the rules of the game are rigged by hype-masters
in the money markets: workers beat down, stock goes up – hip-hip,
Week, like Forbes, speaks to the corporate class. Lies are
businessmen need to know the real deal: “The industry's goal
is to bring its health-care costs more in line with those of
nonunion Wal-Mart Stores,” said the February
12 Business Week. “The retail giant's medical plan covers
fewer than half its workers, and its sales clerks earn less,
on average, than the federal poverty level.”
course, there is nothing intrinsically special about the
cost of health care – for
the company, it’s just another labor expense, albeit a fat
and growing one. If Wal-Mart is the model – the leader of the
pack – then “the industry’s goal” is to bring all labor
costs “more in line” with the viciously anti-union trendsetter.
The larger objective is to break the union, as an organization
or in spirit. From the current corporate perspective, level
playing fields can only exist when the employees are flat on
their backs. Executives from purportedly competing companies
conspire and collude toward that end, all the while pleading
that “The Devil (Wal-Mart) made me do it.”
Devil and his disciples at Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons
have access to
the same numbers, and move inexorably in the same direction.
It is their nature. The supermarkets offer to the striking
and locked out UFCW workers amounts to a 65 percent cut in
the employers’ health care contribution: from the current $3.85
per hour worked to $1.35. The owners dispute this figure, but
in eagerly following Wal-Mart’s model they have telegraphed
the fact that there is no limit to how far they are willing
to reduce labor costs. If there is a bottom, Wal-Mart will
find it first, and the pack will eagerly follow.
Wal-Mart can also
teach its acolytes how to profit from poverty. Although the Walton
family spends millions on rightwing causes to undermine
what’s left of the social safety net, their corporation urges
employees to apply for every available government assistance.
According to a report
prepared by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce,
federal taxpayers subsidize the typical, 200-employee Wal-Mart
store at the rate of $420,750 a year. Rep.
George Miller charges Wal-Mart is the source of "downward
spirals in communities."
excuses its bare bones health care plan – which covers no one working less
than 34 hours a week – on the grounds that about 40 percent
of their “associates” get health coverage through their otherwise
employed spouse’s plans. The rationale appears to be: employees
whose spouses work at better places have no need for health
striking southern California grocery workers who depended
on the company plan
no longer have health benefits, and must get by on $100 dollars
a week doled out from the union strike fund. They don’t want
to be the first line of defense against a highly mobile corporate
assault on living standards in America – but they have no choice.
They are in the way
of a yelping wolf pack, led and inspired by Wal-Mart.