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An Empire Built on Bargains Remakes the Working World

Wal-Mart is so powerful that it moves the economies of entire countries, bringing profit and pain. The prices can't be beat, but the wages can.

November 23, 2003|Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writers

Las Vegas — Las Vegas

Chastity Ferguson kept watch over four sleepy children late one Friday as she flipped a pack of corn dogs into a cart at her new favorite grocery store: Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter, a pink stucco box twice as big as a Home Depot, combines a full-scale supermarket with the usual discount mega-store. For the 26-year-old Ferguson, the draw is simple.

"You can't beat the prices," said the hotel cashier, who makes $400 a week. "I come here because it's cheap."

Across town, another mother also is familiar with the Supercenter's low prices. Kelly Gray, the chief breadwinner for five children, lost her job as a Raley's grocery clerk last December after Wal-Mart expanded into the supermarket business here. California-based Raley's closed all 18 of its stores in the area, laying off 1,400 workers.

Gray earned $14.68 an hour with a pension and family health insurance. Wal-Mart grocery workers typically make less than $9 an hour.

"It's like somebody came and broke into your home and took something huge and important away from you," said the 36-year-old. "I was scared. I cried. I shook."

Wal-Mart gives. And Wal-Mart takes away.

From a small-town five-and-dime, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown over 50 years to become the world's largest corporation and a global economic force.

It posted $245 billion in sales in its most recent fiscal year -- nearly twice as much as General Electric Co. and almost eight times as much as Microsoft Corp. It is the nation's largest seller of toys, furniture, jewelry, dog food and scores of other consumer products. It is the largest grocer in the United States.

Wal-Mart's decisions influence wages and working conditions across a wide swath of the world economy, from the shopping centers of Las Vegas to the factories of Honduras and South Asia. Its business is so vital to developing countries that some send emissaries to the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., almost as if Wal-Mart were a sovereign nation.

The company has prospered by elevating one goal above all others: cutting prices relentlessly. U.S. economists say its tightfistedness has not only boosted its own bottom line, but also helped hold down the inflation rate for the entire country. Consumers reap the benefits every time they push a cart through Wal-Mart's checkout lines.

Yet Wal-Mart's astonishing success exacts a heavy price.

By squeezing suppliers to cut wholesale costs, the company has hastened the flight of U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas. By scouring the globe for the cheapest goods, it has driven factory jobs from one poor nation to another.

Wal-Mart's penny-pinching extends to its own 1.2 million U.S. employees, none of them unionized. By the company's own admission, a full-time worker might not be able to support a family on a Wal-Mart paycheck.

Then there are casualties like Kelly Gray. As Wal-Mart expands rapidly into groceries, it is causing upheaval in yet another corner of the economy. When a Supercenter moves into town, competitors often are wiped out, taking high-paying union jobs with them.

Wal-Mart's plans to enter the grocery business in California early next year have thrown the state's supermarket industry into turmoil. Fearful of Wal-Mart's ability to undercut them on price, the Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons chains have sought concessions from their unionized workers in Southern and Central California, leading to a work stoppage now entering its seventh week.

Half a century ago, the nation's largest and most emulated employer was General Motors Corp. "Today," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara, "for better or worse, it's Wal-Mart."

GM brought prosperity to factory towns and made American workers the envy of the world. With a high-wage union job, an assembly-line worker could afford a house, a decent car, maybe even a boat by the lake.

There was a bit of truth, Lichtenstein said, to the famous assertion by Charles Wilson, General Motors chief from 1941 to 1953, that what was good for GM was good for the country.

With Wal-Mart, the calculus is considerably more complex.

'We Have Split Brains'

Glenn Miraflor used to chide his wife for shopping at Wal-Mart.

As a member of Ironworkers Local 416, the 50-year-old father of four is well aware of the retailer's anti-union stance. But when the family's credit card debt topped $10,000, Wal-Mart's deals suddenly looked irresistible.

"Where else are you going to find a computer for $498?" he asked, looking for a PC with his wife, Debbie, at the Supercenter on Serene Avenue, far from the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip. "Everyone I work with shops here."

Surveys by the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers -- the two unions most threatened by Wal-Mart -- show that many of their own members shop at the discounter.

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