<< Front page Commentary April 9, 2004


Bring the fight to Wal-Mart

It took three separate development proposals, but to prove the tired adage, the third time proved to be quite the charm for Wal-Mart. In the midst of an active debate and to the caustic reception of local small business retailers, the mega-retail-giant will begin construction on a new Oberlin store, probably in 2005, and we’re all invited.

That’s right: Wal-Mart will construct a supercenter within city limits. But don’t think that falling prices are the only thing that will need watching out for when the cancerous, big-box retailer’s warehouse of wonder finally metastasizes on the junction of U.S. Routes 20 and 58.

Never mind the fact that a Wal-Mart supercenter will severely undercut local businesses with its aggressive saturation-marketing policies and its unbeatably low bulk prices. Never mind that this may invariably—or at least will very likely—decimate Oberlin’s current retail and service economic landscape of modest diversity and autonomy.

Never mind that a Wal-Mart supercenter will expose a large number of local workers to Wal-Mart’s atrocious labor practices, which include terse anti-union stances, low-wage domestic employment policies that place more than half of Wal-Mart’s U.S. employees under the wing of welfare, and deplorable overseas employment practices that could be readily labeled as sweatshop or, in the most substandard conditions, slave labor.

After all, these considerations rest on “abstract grounds,” and we’re just a bunch of whiney petit-bourgeois who can’t accept the seeming truth that low-priced necessities and newly created Wal-Mart jobs will benefit Oberlin’s impoverished and stimulate economic growth, right? Why question the responsibility of acquiescing to Wal-Mart’s imperialism, as long as the 99 cent necessity is a five minute drive away? Why even bother to fight it, because isn’t that Mr. Smiley cute?

Questionable labor practices and competitive disadvantages aside, we are also facing an invisible cultural invasion that is often felt but rarely acknowledged. In order to stand up for ourselves, we all have to stop treating Wal-Mart like a low-price wonderland and see it as the multi-billion-dollar-hoarding wasteland of pseudo-Christian censorship that bans certain music, magazines, literature and films on the grounds of “decency.”

That’s right. Wal-Mart, with its 100 million regular customers, $200 billion in yearly sales, and 3,000-and-growing stores, takes an ideological stance with groups like the American Family Association. Like the AFA, Wal-Mart’s censorship practices smack of other hyper-Christian, anti-gay, anti-sex, pro-life and “traditional family values” stances, otherwise known as massive intolerance. These represent the most troublesome aspect to the hidden threats that Wal-Mart poses. Why?

These censorship practices matter because Wal-Mart is not merely a store, a mega-huge-retail giant or an exploitative employer. By its very nature as a dominating economic and, therefore, cultural force, Wal-Mart shapes the national and international consciousness. It shapes ideas and changes perspectives, “sanitizing” the products it offers as it deems necessary. It represents an insular and myopic, to say nothing of intolerant, worldview and value system. Yet, it does so without restricting the availability of goods such as guns, ammo and Amy Grant.

What’s the message here? There, there, America, sex is naughty and freedom of expression is evil, but don’t fret for Daddy’s gonna buy you a tin bucket of ammunition and a giant box of Fritos. Oh, and have a nice toy too, but don’t ask where Malaysia is and how it sells its plastic goods for so cheap.

Wal-Mart tells us what we should need and delivers accordingly, at the cost of every minority and individual voice. This is why we should care. This is why we should fight Wal-Mart in every way we legally can. We need to take a stand against its aggressive growth. Someone need to stop accepting its strong-armed domination of retail and cultural space.
We can join the fight. When Wal-Mart finally arrives, don’t work for it. Don’t shop at its store. We can’t stop Wal-Mart from invading Oberlin, but we can indeed ensure that its tenure is as brief as possible.

–Douglass Dowty, Editor-in-Chief
–Margaret Carey, Commentary Editor
–Eric Klopfer, Steven Kwan, Colin Smith, Managing Editors

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