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'The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business'

The retailing behemoth has created a unique corporate subculture that is rooted in its hope of Bentonville, Ark.

August 16, 2009|Jon Wiener | Wiener teaches American history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor to the Nation.

The Wal-Mart work force does have what Lichtenstein calls "a labor aristocracy": the 8,000 truck drivers. Their work was too important to be outsourced -- Wal-Mart requires total control over shipping from its distribution centers to guarantee on-time delivery to stores. So the drivers get high wages and good working conditions. Since the early 1980s, drivers have not been "required to help load and unload their shipments. Their uniforms were now always clean; their equipment was the best in the business."

But the associates, Lichtenstein emphasizes, are not the lowest workers at Wal-Mart. At the bottom are the janitors who clean the stores overnight.

Over the years, many worked for independent subcontractors, and many were undocumented immigrants exploited ruthlessly because of their illegal status. Wal-Mart locked in the janitors, and other workers, overnight -- the company said to protect them from robbers, though many store managers contend that it was to discourage theft by those very workers -- so that even if they got sick or had a family emergency, they couldn't get out of the store except by an alarmed fire door (and they could face dismissal if there was no fire), until the manager arrived in the morning. That led to bad publicity, and changes.

Across the Pacific are the real proletarians of Wal-Mart: the hundreds of thousands of young single women who work in the factories in southern China that make the toys, sneakers, clothing, electronics that fill the shelves in the U.S. They come from poverty-stricken villages far away; Lichtenstein describes the crowded dorms where they live, their extremely long work weeks, and the policies that send them back home to their villages if they get sick or pregnant.

Lichtenstein is a historian, and he does a beautiful job of putting Wal-Mart in its historical context. The glory days of Wal-Mart were the Reagan-Clinton-Bush years, the years of unions in retreat, global free trade, lax enforcement of labor laws, and, for most Americans, stagnating wages that led them to seek cheap consumer goods.

But that era has finally come to an end, and with Barack Obama in the White House, Lichtenstein argues. Wal-Mart faces "a day of reckoning": The Democrats will raise the minimum wage, encourage unionization, rigorously enforce laws governing wages and hours, and require employers to pay some of the health insurance costs of their workers.

And as Lichtenstein points out, there is an anti-Wal-Mart out there: Costco. It pays veteran workers a lot more than equally experienced workers at Wal-Mart: $5 an hour more. It provides almost all of its workers with a good health insurance plan. Costco has a different lineage -- in contrast to Sam Walton, Costco "owes its character to Sol Price, the Jewish, New Deal Democrat whose social and cultural values were those of Depression-era New York." And while Wal-Mart has been stagnating for the last several years, Costco has been booming -- it's now the fourth-largest retailer in America.

Thus Lichtenstein has written a definitive account not only of Wal-Mart's past but also of the forces shaping its future.

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