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Wal-Mart Protesters Miss Mark
by Isabel Lyman
7 October 2000

Isabel Lyman “Wal-Mart,” Nate informed me, “is a great company.”

Really? So how did Nate react to the several hundred demonstrators who recently assembled outside the Wal-Mart in Hadley to decry his employer's crimes against humanity. The laundry list included paying employees meager wages, prohibiting unions and exploiting international workers.

Nate said he wasn't impressed. “Half of these people don't even know what this protest is about,” he sniffed. “They're just college students getting credit for class.”

I would put it another way: Gravitas, dudes. Your gathering lacked gravitas.

Maybe it was the flake dressed as a tree trunk bearing the 'Global Schmobal, Defend the Earth' sign. Or, maybe it was because the slogan du jour - Human Needs Not Corporate Greed! - rang hollow. Many of the activists were walking billboards for corporate America: clothes by Old Navy, shoes by Reebok, backpacks by JanSport, umbrellas by Wilson, hamburgers by Burger King, hypocrisy by the human condition ...

Even the Teamster fella who drove the Freightliner semi (made in a factory in Mexico by an exploited Mejicano, no doubt) which served as a backdrop to the speeches, didn't seem eager about doing his part for global justice.

“I don't have anything to do with these people,” announced Mister-Can't-Really-Do-As-He-Wants union member. “I just go where they send me.”

Meanwhile, Nate's co-workers - those oppressed Wal-Mart employees - were respectfully and quietly taking it all in on the sidelines. Their behavior was in marked contrast to protesters who would not stop chattering when a gentleman from the Czech Republic took the microphone and began an impassioned talk about the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or the World Wrestling Federation. Beats me. I couldn't hear him, because the students against sweatshops wouldn't shut up. Honestly, if you are going to mobilize against the existing order, it wouldn't hurt your cause to exercise some manners, and to comb that blue hair.

While there was no counter-demonstration, customers paid the ultimate compliment to the nation's largest retailer while the crowd yelled “power to the people!” chants. They keep streaming in to buy those wonderfully low-priced clothes, household goods, food, toys, books, making those stockholders' shares rise. Just this week Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters announced that total sales for the five-week period ending on September 29 were $17.3 billion. Whoa! Plans are under way to open 40 stores and 180 supercenters next year. (Nationwide, there are 1,742 Wal-Mart stores and 835 Supercenters.)

Seems like thumbing your nose at Wal-Mart is like saying you can't handle success, competition, and the free market. Seems like holding a grudge against this discount palace is like admitting you can't stand the fact that overtaxed, working Americans have a lively place at which to shop that caters to “the people.” That attitude is as cheesy as dissing Mom, apple pie and the flag.

Whatever its shortcomings - and what corporation that employs 1.2 million folks wouldn't have them - Wal-Mart does much good. Its charitable deeds are as abundant as the well-stocked shelves found in its stores.

Wal-Mart regularly gives to the Boy and Girl Scouts, food banks, parks, student scholarships, police charities, senior citizen centers and most especially, needy kids. Wal-Mart is the largest sponsor of the Children's Miracle Network telethon, which has raised millions upon millions for children's hospitals. John Walton, son of the late Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder, is the co-chairman of the Children's Scholarship Fund. The organization - to which Walton has pledged $50 million - gives poor students vouchers which they can use toward tuition at a private school or in a home school.

And, on a local level, let's not forget that before Wal-Mart made its debut in Hadley, the site was nicknamed the “dead mall.” “Resurrected” is the word I would use to describe a place that has also attracted a linen store, a clothing store and scores of noisy activists.

Ol' Sam Walton must be chuckling in his grave.


This column appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on October 7, 2000.

Recently returned from Edmond, Oklahoma, Isabel Lyman is an editorial columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts. Her views have appeared in various national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily. She may be contacted via e-mail by clicking here.
Click here for an index of other Isabel Lyman columns.
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