Wal-Mart's chief executive went on the attack the other day against the critics of the world's largest retailer. Just what is it, he wanted to know, that some noisy, nosy folk have against free choice?
H. Lee Scott Jr. didn't put the matter nearly so bluntly, but he certainly might have, if the spirit had so moved him.
Offering middle-class America the widest selection of goods at the lowest prices that market position and hard negotiating can achieve has become a form of oppression: That would seem to be the core of the hardening case against Wal-Mart.
Who pleads that case? The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, backed by no-growthers and take-your-progress-and-shove-it types who want the chain's expansion halted.
Weary of watching his company denounced as a grinder-down of the working class and a despoiler of the environment, Scott, in a meeting with the news media, called Wal-Mart "great for America." He extolled the chain's approach to business. He defended wage rates and benefits programs as fair. He wanted, not unreasonably, to know why "people would line up for jobs that are worse than they could get elsewhere, with fewer benefits and less opportunity."
Good question. We'll see what kind of answer it gets. What is heartening is to sniff the prospect of good, open combat between those who presume to judge where Americans should shop and those who say to these same Americans: It's up to you!
Possibly my first task here is to declare relative impartiality regarding Wal-Mart. Haven't shopped there or at a Sam's Club in 10 years or more. Couldn't tell you offhand where to find the nearest Wal-Mart. Can't think of anything I'd want to do there if I knew where to go. Don't really enjoy shopping, come to think of it!
Well, that's my own business. Others make it their business to trade at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club as often as humanly possible. Is it my business to discourage them, then, through trying to block the building of new stores or agitating for the overthrow of the present employer-employee relationship? I'd say on the whole, no. Though others clearly wouldn't.
The whole merit of free markets is supposed to be customer choice. If you don't feel like trading with Neiman Marcus, why, go on over to Wal-Mart. Or trade both places, depending on price, convenience and specific needs. The call is up to the customer -- theoretically.
We know "the customer" isn't some paragon of wisdom and good judgment. He's not even one thing -- he's everybody. You let "him" choose what suits him best.
Ah! But only (according to the union) if he shops where the union has a foothold. It might well mean higher prices, but, if so, tough. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union's take on our national needs is more acute than our own -- if you don't mind letting a union decide what's best for you.
So with the union's inference that, even though 1.5 million people (worldwide) freely accept Wal-Mart's terms of employment, a little coercion by the union on wages and benefits would make their lives happier. Maybe. On the other hand, if the union's terms preclude profit levels that afford employment to 1.5 million people, employment is sure to shrink or slow down.
The Wal-Mart-busters, when you get down to it, aren't unduly respectful of free choice, whether exercised by shoppers or workers. They've got their own ideas, which, in their own minds, take precedence over the ideas and notions of others.
Did anyone really foresee American liberalism -- the creed, broadly speaking, of the Wal-Mart-busters -- becoming snobbish to this degree? Well, yeah, actually. From the 1930s, union organizers set out to hogtie large companies, thus restricting such latitude as those companies enjoyed to adapt, experiment and reach out.
Then, on Wal-Mart, the unions ganged up with the no-growthers -- an odd combo, indeed, given labor's constant need for new jobs. You could call it Howard Dean's America. If you wanted to call it America.