Nationalize Wal-Mart
Bill Shortell
April 2004

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth by unions, small businesses, and the Global Justice movement about the onslaught of Wal-Mart, it's time to talk about the socialist alternative: nationalize the bastards! They already control 8% of the nation's retail (2003). They are undermining our democracy, already weakened by the fascist-minded Bush clique.

The Populists, 120 years ago launched the great anti-trust movement in the face of the Standard Oil and US Steel monopolies. Now government regulation by means of antitrust legislation seems to be just about over. No doubt other useful legislative methods of curbing Wal-Mart, like Labor Law Reform, come to mind faster than nationalization, but it is time to put it on the agenda.

Why is Wal-Mart Winning?
Small businesses put up furious struggles almost everywhere the superstores go up. Almost everywhere they lose, because they are defending a worn-out structure: No economy of scale = Anarchic supply system.

Is it possible that after tasting Wal-Mart's low prices, consumers will go back to the archaic system? Soon Wal-Marts and Waltonism will control almost all retail. They already dominate. Despite a whole lot of nostalgia for "Main Street" the retail petit bourgeoisie has trouble mobilizing their area working class because they are generally lousy employers, too. Plus they have to charge high prices, in spite of the long hours which they often put in personally. Except for the minority of grocery workers, retail has never paid well. In 1982 retail workers made 50% of manufacturing wages. In 20 years the Big Boxes have only managed to drive this down to 47%, so close to starvation have they been all along. Even in union stores, the mass of workers, the stock and checkout clerks, make little more than Wal-Mart workers.

Fruits of Nationalization
By eliminating profit, nationalization can provide low prices while at the same time providing decent wages, working conditions, and support a national health system. The dying mom and pop structure can do none of this. Nationalization can, however, once again decentralize distribution, without sacrificing price, by achieving even greater economy of scale than Wal-Mart.

There is no environmental justice in socializing big box retail as is. All that does is perpetuate the car culture and pollution. Some of the savings of centralization can be sacrificed for a more human, community-friendly distribution system. Consumers today are subsidizing Wal-Mart's prices with the cost of driving their vehicles 10-20 miles to shop.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Labor Secretary says that Americans have two minds, one for American jobs, and the other for cheap prices. Actually, there are hardly two minds; only the most zealous union activists actually boycott Wal-Mart. Consumerism beats unionism hands down in 2004. That goes for "Buy America"?, too, for 3 reasons:

  1. "A bird in the hand" International Unions are disappearing. Low prices accomplish the same thing as a wage increase.
  2. Retail pay is so uniformly lousy. Defending status quo wage slavery does not arouse the kind of revolutionary zeal necessary to stop Waltonism.
  3. Rampant individualism. We are in an era when people take more pride in finding a bargain than in doing a good day's work The scramble to get by alone has elevated "taking care of #1" to the point of a religion. Ruthless shopping and price chopping are elements of widespread alienation.

There are reasons for optimism: the Global Justice movement and the renewed anti-war movement give hope that the moral vacuum created partially by toxic consumerism will collapse. Affordable, available consumer goods is a human right. Just like education and healthcare, the distribution of basic necessities must be controlled democratically. A new call for socialism is a necessary element in social rebirth. Wal-Mart is so widely hated, so arrogant that it is an obvious target for socialist agitation, right alongside of our private healthcare non-system.

Socialist demands are also what we need to bring back our union movement. We are being strangled by obsession with isolated, short-term defensive battles. Audacious justice will get us out of our rut.


Bill Shortell is an International Association of Machinists (IAM) member and activist from Connecticut.

Blue-Light Special America

Number of Georgia children on subsidized healthcare whose parents work at Wal-Mart: 10,260

Percent of Wal-Mart workers who can't afford the company health plan: 55

Percent of health care premiums Wal-Mart workers have to pay: 40

Percent that workers have to pay at average Fortune 500 company: 20

Rank of Wal-Mart among biggest employers in Georgia and U.S.: 1

Amount taxpayers subsidize average Wal-Mart store through welfare programs a year: $420,750

Number of world's 10 richest people that are Wal-Mart executives: 5

(Sources on file at the Institute for Southern Studies.)

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