On March 4, as part of its monthly Faculty Lecture Series, UCSB’s Center for Information Technology and Society offered all those interested a chance to hear professor Dr. Nelson Lichtenstein discuss the rise of Wal-Mart.
Located in UCSB’s McCune Conference Room, Lichtenstein’s lecture — engagingly titled “How Southern Backwardness Made Wal-Mart Executives Love High Tech and Low Wages” — focused on the superstore’s most prevalent criticisms, namely the maltreatment of its employees.
Dr. Lichtenstein, having studied Wal-Mart for many years, is well-versed in its history. Citing facts from the present — the store’s $4.5 billion in sales, 6,000 branches, and two million employees —Lichtenstein also delved into the past, crediting founder Sam Walton’s frugality (he dubbed him a “skinflint”) and innovative thinking for the company’s financial success. Much to its advantage, Lichtenstein said, “Wal-Mart expanded like molasses.”
The first of its kind, as compared to competitors K-mart and Target, Wal-Mart created its very own distribution centers, as opposed to relying on a third-party for getting the goods to the stores, Lichtenstein said. Furthermore, added Lichtenstein, Wal-Mart established a sort of employee hierarchy, mostly as a means of not relying on third-parties. Calling the truck drivers the “aristocracy of workers at Wal-Mart,” given their relatively high salaries ($80,000-100,000 per year), Dr. Lichtenstein also emphasized the flaws within that system, deeming the majority of said truck drivers white males.
Further flawed, Dr. Lichtenstein said, is the company’s dismissal of unions. Noting that many employees tried to unionize in the past (including the truck drivers), Dr. Lichtenstein said that they were “repressed and beaten down in the most old-fashioned way: firings.” Wal-Mart, Lichtenstein added, is “very sophisticated in its anti-unionism.”
Perhaps in a less sophisticated manner, Wal-Mart touts communal values while governing in a very “patriarchal” fashion, said Dr. Lichtenstein, noting that “managers are men and clerks are women.”
Speaking in regard to Wal-Mart’s emphasis on “blue-collar, low-wage labor,” Dr. Lichtenstein recognized that the company is “resentful of government regulations,” and thus was greatly concerned when Senator Obama became President Obama. “Democrats support change in labor laws,” Dr. Lichtenstein said. “Wal-Mart is very hostile to that.” Nevertheless, faced with the reality of a Democratic president, “things were done [on behalf of Wal-Mart] to accommodate the Democrats,” Dr. Lichtenstein said, such as settling many labor lawsuits and even going so far as to support healthcare reform.
Regardless, Wal-Mart seems somewhat unfazed by its scrutiny, rather embracing its philosophy of — as interpreted by Dr. Lichtenstein — “supply and command, not demand.” Ending his lecture, Dr. Lichtenstein revealed a key Wal-Mart credo: that “being in retail is a service to society.”