Every Saturday morning, about 180 miles north of Zuccotti Park, a small group of residents in Greenfield, Massachusetts gathers at Court Square, just across from Town Hall. They become, for a couple of hours, the visible face of the “Occupy Greenfield” movement in this community of 17,000 people.
On this particular Saturday morning, 10 people are standing in a ragged line holding hand-lettered signs that read: “Tax the Rich, Jail the Wall Street Thieves.” “Jobs Not Corporate Greed.” “Corporate $ Out of Politics.” “Stand With the 99%.”
Roughly two miles from this Occupy Greenfield outpost, on the edge of town, the world’s largest retailer is continuing a 20-year effort to construct a 135,000-square-foot superstore by the highway that stretches east/west from Boston.
A symbol of corporate greed too large for local residents to ignore, Walmart Stores, Inc. is bulldozing the earth at the bottom of a 10-acre sand pit, preparing for spring construction. The only thing that stands in the retail corporation’s way are seven local residents who have filed a lawsuit against the developer and the Town in housing court.
For the past nine months, they have kept a very wealthy Connecticut mall developer and his Arkansas client at bay. These homeowners, several of whom are elderly, have spent more than $60,000 to fight off the richest family in America—the Walton family—which is collectively worth more than $100 billion.
These neighbors are having their own “Occupy” moment, fighting for control over their neighborhood—because this is where the fight for economic justice plays out, right in their own hometown.
The “Occupy” movement, in a matter of months, has evolved from a site-specific encampment in the enemy-held territory of Wall Street, to a broad-based cry for economic justice in Anywhere, U.S.A.
In January 2012, Yes! magazine published a manifesto called “A Bill of Rights for Occupied Communities.” This Community Bill of Rights proclaims:
“...Whereas, the citizens of [your city] believe that the protection of residents, neighborhoods, and the natural environment constitutes the highest and best use of the police powers that this municipality possesses; Therefore, the residents of the city of [your city] hereby adopt this ordinance which creates a community bill of rights for the residents and communities of the City, and removes certain legal powers from corporations operating within the City of [your city].”
In rolling back the power of corporations at the grassroots level, this Bill of Rights reclaims the power of local residents over the use of land in their hometowns. This “Right to Determine The Future of Neighborhoods” is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution: “Neighborhood majorities shall have the right to approve all zoning changes proposed for their neighborhood involving significant commercial, industrial, or residential development. It shall be the responsibility of the proposer of the zoning change to acquire the approval of the neighborhood majority, and the zoning change shall not be effective without it.”
Had this right been in place twenty years ago, there would be few, if any, big-box superstores in America, and the landscape of your community, even its economic underpinnings, would be different.
The Occupy movement has far-reaching implications beyond what happened at Zuccotti Park. It reaches down into the grassroots level of American life, and says to the average voter: “You have the power, and the responsibility, to take back control over your communities from the corporations that took it away.”
Long before there was an Occupy concept, I described the Wal-Mart encroachment across America this way: “Your quality of life is worth more than a cheap pair of underwear.”
At its core, the fight of neighborhoods, in small towns and big cities, against the invasion of superstores, is a fight for self-determination—a battle to occupy your own hometown.
In any battle, it is critical to understand the nature of your opponent, how it behaves, and what motivates it. In the case of big-box stores like Wal-Mart, where the combat is literally over streets and blocks, the nature of the beast is part of the public education process, because most people see retailers as just underwear and bananas at cheap prices.
This book is a collection of essays about that “Beast from Bentonville.” Each essay sizes up the enemy from a different angle: how it treats its workers, how it squeezes its providers, how it takes advantage of small towns, and how it wrecks the local economy. It’s all about corporate power, about the 1% leaders who have amassed enormous wealth by exploiting people and resources all along the chain of production.
Having helped citizen groups battle big-box stores for nearly two decades, I have come to view Walmart as emblematic of most of what is wrong with our country today.
To succeed with such a model, Walmart keeps American consumers focused on their own shopping lists, rather than on the larger issues of the decimation of domestic manufacturing, our trade imbalance with China, the cost of public subsidies to Walmart workers and their dependents, the environmental impact of megastores, the retailer’s elaborate tax avoidance schemes, and the obliteration of local community character. Most people I see cheerleading Walmart at public hearings have a sense of community that is no larger than the dimensions of their own shopping cart.
In 2010, Walmart spent an average of $6.575 million every day on image advertising, indoctrinating shoppers to believe they could “save money, live better” at Walmart. No wonder Americans are so steeped in the Walmart message. Walmart’s advertising budget jumped 19 percent between 2009 and 2011.
More than any other retailer, Walmart has become the symbol of our country’s shift from being a nation of producers to being a nation of consumers. Today we measure American economic strength by something called the “consumer confidence index,” which is based on survey data collected by the Nielsen Company, the same people who survey us about our television-watching habits. Americans today represent 4.5 percent of the world’s population and 28 percent of the world’s consumption. We consume six times the rate of our share of the global population. Walmart is the preeminent vehicle that enables Americans to go on the biggest shopping binge in history. As our lives become depleted of meaning, our shelves fill up with cheap merchandise that briefly passes through our hands on its way to our landfills.
We have paid an enormous price for this paradigm shift from maker to buyer. According to the Economic Policy Institute, trade imbalances in manufacturing have accounted for 59 percent of the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment between 1998 and 2003, a period which coincides with one of the fast growing periods in Walmart’s corporate climb.
This reliance on outsourced products has resulted in 2.7 million jobs lost due to rising net manufactured imports, while our trade deficit in manufactured items rose by over $230 billion. A 2007 report by the Economic Policy Institute says that Walmart alone accounted for 11 percent of the growth of the total U.S. trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2006. The report blames Walmart for the loss of 200,000 American jobs during this period.
In December 2010, at a policy conference on the U.S.-China Commercial Relationship, American Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said: “We can no longer depend so heavily on consumers in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries to be engines of global economic growth. This approach worked well enough in the past—but it has created major imbalances in the global economy that threaten everyone’s stability and prosperity.” One former economist for the International Monetary Fund recently estimated that China owns about $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, or nearly half the $2.37 trillion stock of Treasury debt held by foreign owners.
Walmart has replaced higher-wage manufacturing jobs with base-level retail jobs. We have become a nation of baggers and clerks. These Walmart workers spend their paychecks at Walmart, creating an economic death spiral: a nation of low-wage workers stimulating demand for cheap Chinese imports, causing more lost manufacturing output and raising trade deficits. In short, Walmart has become a central player in the decline of the American economy.
Most Americans are too busy trying to stay above water financially to worry about trade deficits. But many households understand that Walmart is no longer the “Made in America” myth that Sam Walton wrote about in his 1992 autobiography. No one talks anymore about Walton’s “Bring It Home to the U.S.A.” program that he launched in 1985 because of his concern with the “soaring U.S. trade deficit.” Sam Walton admitted that his company was “a huge importer of merchandise from overseas.” Walton feared that his “Bring It Home” campaign would be dismissed as a “publicity stunt.” But he didn’t have to worry. The campaign died with Walton in 1992.
In November 2009, Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes published a telephone poll that asked Americans to pick the company which “best symbolizes America today.” Participants were given five choices: Google, Microsoft, the National Football League, Goldman Sachs, or Walmart. Nearly half (48 percent) chose Walmart, more than three times those who selected Google. The results of that survey could be construed to mean that in post-Wall Street bailout America, Walmart truly best symbolizes the corporate excesses that drove our economy into the ditch.
Because of its unprecedented size, Walmart may appear to have a secure lead over all of its rivals. In the grocery sector for example, Walmart has more sales than its next five competitors combined. Yet the giant Arkansas retailer exhibits very fragile customer loyalty. In a June 2010 Consumer Reports survey, 30,666 readers ranked experiences and products at 11 retailers, including Walmart. Readers said prices at the 10 other retailers (which included JCPenney, Sears, and Target) were “at least as good” as at Walmart. Almost three-quarters of Walmart shoppers found at least one problem to complain about, and half had two or more complaints.
In terms of overall store rating, Walmart finished 10th out of the 11 stores, barely nosing out Kmart as dead last. “Walmart was near the bottom of the Ratings,” Consumer Reports concluded. “The number of complaints about Walmart’s lines and narrow aisles was above average. About 44 percent of its shoppers had a problem with the staff if they sought help. Quality of apparel, jewelry, kitchenware, and electronics was rated below average.” Consumer Report readers said that Walmart and Kmart had the least knowledgeable staffers, and Walmart’s cavernous supercenters were cited as “stores that were too big to navigate easily.”
Despite such criticisms, Walmart has stuck to its corporate mantra that its shopping experience is “fast, friendly, and clean.” But shoppers all across American are leaving Walmart for other competitors. In 2009 and 2010, Walmart experienced seven consecutive quarters of falling same store sales (those open one year or longer). Smaller, nimbler companies like Aldi’s, Dollar General, and Tesco have been nibbling away at Walmart’s market share. Electronic retailers like Amazon have been grabbing online sales from the bricks-and-mortar superstores.
The American recession drove Walmart into urban markets in search of new markets. Its major growth vehicle—the huge superstore—is becoming a liability in urban markets instead of an asset. The Ice Age is already starting to claim the superstore dinosaurs.
At its annual stockholders meeting in June 2007, Walmart announced it would open between 190 and 200 new stores in the United States—a much slower rate of growth than stated in the company’s 2007 annual report, which promised 265 to 270 new supercenters. More recently, Walmart has begun rolling out store prototypes as small as 14,000 square feet to compete for the convenience shopper making “fill-in” trips between major shopping visits.
“When you get as large as we are,” former Walmart CEO Lee Scott told the Chicago Tribune in June 2005, “you have to paint a picture in people’s minds that you can still grow. Otherwise, they think of $285 billion (in sales) and think ‘That’s the end of that.’ Well, it isn’t.”
Two months before Scott’s speech at the Executive Club in Chicago, Bernstein Research Call issued a 13-page report warning stockholders of the downside of Walmart’s superstore plans. The analysts noted that Walmart’s growth “is under siege in several regions of the country from growing opposition by local communities…Local opposition has successfully squashed numerous plans among big box players.”
Citizen groups’ successes grew at a 21 percent annual rate in 2004 and 2005. Forty-six Walmart projects were defeated or withdrawn in 2006. Not only did Walmart suddenly apply the brakes on growth for 2008, the company lowered its new store output to 170 superstores per year for the next three years. Walmart admitted that it had oversaturated many markets and was now competing with itself. “We also have been focused this year on reducing cannibalization of existing stores via our more strategic selection of U.S. real estate projects,” explained the company’s chief administrative officer.
Some may argue that the Occupy movement’s call for economic justice and local self-determination has come too late—that the damage Walmart has done to our hometowns and our economy is already history. But just as the champions of the free market like to tout “creative destructionism”—the idea that new growth often has to destroy what already exists—I believe that as communities begin to set the terms of the local control debate, and challenge the notion of corporate personhood, that the shareholders will begin to demand change inside rogue corporations like Walmart, which has used a destructive business model for half a century to lay waste to the places where we live and to dominate our economy.
The principles espoused by the 99%—of retaking control over the economic engines that drive our economy, of building the kinds of neighborhoods and towns that people actually want to live in, based on local need rather than corporate greed—is the best chance we have to reverse a process that has promoted corporate profit as the highest and best purpose of our society.
The advantage we have is that this battleground is right on Main Street, where we live. To these giant retailers, it is just another place to plant the corporate flag. But to us, it’s our home that we are seeking to occupy.
Read more at www.Sprawl-Busters.com
Books by Al Norman
Occupy Walmart: Essays from the Huffington Post
By Al Norman