Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 3, 4 or 5
Last month saw mass demonstrations and selective strikes against Wal-Mart’s low pay, bad benefits and retaliation against workers who speak out. Protests ranged from suburban Wal-Mart locations to the corporation’s annual meeting in Bentonville, Ark.
But U.S. big-box stores emerged in 1962, when Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart all opened their first stores. Further, the phenomenon is traced to the 1920s, when merchants and shoppers alike started objecting to the commercial effects on their communities – effects that continue in even worse ways today.
Midwest playwright Neil Schaffner of the tent-repertoire show the Schaffner Players (“Toby & Susie”) in 1929 wrote a popular comedy, “Chain Stores,” that dealt with the competition that new chain stores presented for local businesses. That play is being revived July 18-20 and 25-26 at the Museum of Repertoire Americana theater on the grounds of the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and also is scheduled to be performed during the Old Threshers Reunion there Aug. 28-Sept.1.
Now, rather than comedies from touring theater companies entertaining small-town and rural audiences, the country watches as organizations such as OurWalMart and its spinoff, “Wal-Mart Moms,” try to change the retail monster, for the better, from within. Although supported by organized labor, Our WalMart isn't a union, but its members still strive for what other workers want: decent pay, benefits and working conditions, respect on the job, and enough pay to feed their families.
Wal-Mart has about 1.4 million workers – some 1 percent of the U.S. workforce – making the giant corporation the world's largest private company. At the end of 2013, Wal-Mart had 4,700 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico (compared to Target operating almost 1,800 locations and Kmart just over 1,200. Wal-Mart reported sales of $444 billion in 2012, when it held the No. 1 spot in the Fortune 500.
“I've had enough of choosing between paying the electric bill and the heating bill or paying for shoes for my kids,” Wal-Mart Mom Linda Haluska of Glenwood, Ill., told Press Associates Union News Service. “My son didn't go to his high school prom because he didn't want to burden me with the cost of the tuxedo rental. How do you think that makes a mother feel?”
It’s a nagging feeling others endured decades ago.
“In view of the fact that ’Chain Stores’ [is] the most discussed topic in America at this time, this play is particularly timely,” Schaffner wrote in 1929.
After the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. economy rebounded, thanks in no small part to the labor movement.
“In the 1950s, General Motors’ rising wages and good benefits, negotiated with the United Auto Workers, set the pace for other companies and led to the creation of the U.S. middle class,” wrote Press Associates’ Mark Gruenberg. “In 2014, Wal-Mart's low wages, bad benefits and virulent anti-unionism set the pace for other firms, leading to corporate trashing of unions and destruction of the middle class.”
Research supports such criticism.
A 2008 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that Wal-Mart’s rapid expansion in the 1980s and 1990s was responsible for 40 percent to 50 percent of the decline in the number of small discount stores. Plus, according to 2014 research in the journal Social Science Quarterly, a similar effect continues: On average, within 15 months of a new Wal-Mart store opening, as many as 14 existing retail establishments close.
Also, other research has found that the arrival of Wal-Mart stores is associated with increased obesity of area residents, higher crime rates compared to communities that have no Wal-Mart stores, lower employment at the county level, and lower per-acre tax revenues than mixed-use development.
Nevertheless, despite such well-documented effects, big-box retailers are often courted by government officials, as suggested by a 2014 paper from the Harvard Kennedy School.
For local residents and the elected officials who purport to represent community interests, the questions become, “If politicians propose tax-based incentives for a retail project, is that an appropriate use of public funds? What are the potential effects, long and short term, on other retailers and employers in the area? Could an expansion of low-wage jobs increase use of taxpayer-funded assistance programs?”
Answers were neither immediately obvious nor enacted in the 1930s or since, but the continuing problem demands an answer.
[PICTURED: Illustration by Chicago cartoonist Ferd Himme from 1929 -- the same years as "Toby & Susie" head Neil Schaffner wrote his tent-theater play "Chain Stores,"from buylocalwausau.com.]