Cooked Goose

December 12, 2010

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It looks like Greenfield (MA) is closer to inviting a big-box store to town, which is kind of like leaping into the mouth of the beast that would eat you. Instead of fighting a predator tooth and claw Greenfield is seasoning itself to become more palatable to a big appetite. Here’s some contrast: remember the doomed character Quint in Jaws?  Sliding down the deck of his busted boat into the mouth of a great white he went kicking and screaming futilely defiant. Quint had self respect. But things are different when it comes to discounts.

The speculation is that this looming “Store X” (as the developer coyly calls it) is probably a Wal-Mart.  Now what self-respecting small town of the 21st century would not want Wal-Mart within its precincts? Everyone loves to rub shoulders with success. After all Mr. W. (we’ll call him that for convenience) is brilliant. Mr. W. has convinced Americans that building his good fortune on our bad luck is not only a boon for him, but is good for us too! If that’s not American egalitarian brilliance, what is?  

Al Zack (no relationship to the admirably persistent and knowledgeable Al Norman), vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union until his retirement in 2004, put it this way in an article for Democratic Wings: “(Mr. W’s) real genius is (that he) figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with the business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow.”

What better way to reap the rewards of an expanding pool of cash-poor customers than to buy goods off-shore, pay workers here as little as possible, offer as few benefits as a docile labor market will bear, then rely on the federal government to pick up the tab for the shortfall in worker income? Isn’t that what a government social safety-net is for?

Say what?  California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (22nd Assembly District) was particularly outraged by that certain Wal-Mart practice. Having been tipped off, “… her office discovered that Wal-Mart was encouraging its workers to apply for public assistance, in the middle of the worst state budget crisis in history! Lieber was enraged that taxpayers would be subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low wages, bringing new meaning to the term “corporate welfare.”

Finding themselves snagged in a Wal-Mart world, where else are workers going to shop, Lord & Taylor? No, when they’re off their employer-mandated part-time shift  in consumer-attack mode, they’ll be milling around in mall parking lots getting ugly before busting through Mr. W’s doors at a big sale opening and trampling fellow employees to death as they did in Mill Valley, N.Y.

Having helped fuel desperation and frenzy in the underclass by buying only the stuff of off-shore labor and squeezing local help as much as he can, Mr. W. might have to provide store bouncers with cattle prods to keep things more civilized the next time he offers some shiny new e-gadget at discount. The truth is, if Mr. W. paid decent wages with benefits fewer folks would need to shop in his stores and contribute to his family’s estate. My guess is you won’t catch John Boehner or Sarah Palin shopping at Wal-Mart —John Kerry or Bill Clinton either, for that matter.

The sadly ironic thing is that the less-well-off are complicit in deepening their troubles. It’s a sign of desperation when people demand that their town bring in a discount chain whose business model predicates its success upon buying low-priced off-shore goods (thereby helping to kill U.S. manufacturing) then targeting un-or-underemployed consumers who are desperate for discounts. Every item bought by the new underclass at Wal-Mart is a self-destructive transaction.  It’s an ironic collusion between Wal-Mart and its customers which  works to drive customers to even greater poverty so they’ll need Wal-Mart discounts even more.

Again, Assemblywoman Lieber: “. . . Wal-Mart’s welfare-dependence (has) made it nearly impossible for responsible employers to compete with the retail giant. It was as if taxpayers were unknowingly funding a massive plunge to the bottom in wages and benefits – quite possibly their own.”

Out where the sun shines this is all perfectly legal. Pared to the bone it’s just smart capitalism. But Wal-Mart is not above skirting the law. According to Al Zack’s article “Wal-Mart routinely violates laws protecting worker’s organizing rights (firing workers for union activity).” It’s also a “…repeat offender on overtime laws.”

Wal-Mart workers have charged that Wal-Mart managers “encouraged” them to clock out and continue working. And others have charged that they were locked in at the ends of their shift. Of course Wal-Mart denies that these abusive practices have anything to do with its business strategy —but someone once said a fish rots from the head.  Even if that aphorism is not always so, given the power of Wal-Mart over its employees, especially in a down economy, does anyone seriously think managers would blatantly violate workers rights and basic morality against Mr. W’s implicit wishes?

So here the people of Greenfield stand, buffeted by the winds of a lousy economy, surrounded by commercial predators, with a choice: to collaborate in their diminishment in order to conveniently buy cheap Chinese stuff up the road a-piece, or to say, “Uh-uh, Mr. W., I’m not buying what you’re selling. If I want to shoot myself in the foot I’d rather purchase a slightly more expensive paint-ball gun made right here in the U.S of A. 

“Still, in keeping with the season, tell your friend Mr. Scrooge when you get together over our cooked goose, ‘Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone, even you.”

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by Jim Culleny
Dec. 12, 2010

for The Greenfield Recorder

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