Why Wal-Mart Matters

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By AlfredaV. Davis, Ward 7 Resident

Press conferences have been staged.  Resident spokespersons have been enlisted.  Charitable gift-giving is in the air. Promises have been made from the corporate giant, Wal-Mart in the tune of $3 million, a literary program there—  all in the name of “helping DC save money and live better”.

For many, it is a foregone conclusion that Wal-Mart is coming to our city; but there is a cautionary tale to be told. It is not coincidental—perhaps it is even providentialas the Wal-Mart hype reaches fever pitch— that the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall is opening to the public, and that at this historic moment, we are being asked to reflect on his work and how we are carrying forward his legacy.

Much of what we hear is about Dr. King’s record on advancing civil rights, but what often gets lost in history is his message about economic justice. When he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, Dr. King was there not for a traditional civil rights march, but to support sanitation workers striking for their rights on the job. In one speech to these striking workers he said, “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. We know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

Right now people who live in this rich nation and work for the richest, largest corporation in the world, Wal-Mart, receive starvation wages. It was a crime when Dr. King spoke in 1968, and it is a crime today. In 2009, Wal-Mart stores in the US alone generated $258 billion in sales.  The question we need to ask ourselves now is, what does it profit our city to bring in Wal-Mart, if they aren’t going to pay our residents enough to live here? In many minds, a paltry $3 million for job training and workforce development programs in the context of Wal-Mart’s unmatched wealth and profits is the equivalent of thirty pieces of silver or trinkets for the sale of Manhattan.  In fact, no amountshould be sufficient to dissuade us from what we know to be just and right.

Unfortunately, many of our elected officials are sidestepping this issue. They are happy to celebrate the dedication of the King memorial, while ignoring the hard work of pursuing his fight for economic justice right here at home. These officials know the Wal-Mart track record: they pay sales associates an average wage of $8.81 an hour; they cost communities 3 jobs for every 2 they create; they decimate small businesses that have faithfully served communities when no one else would;  and they have had to pay back their employees millions in stolen wages through legal settlements. Wal-Mart has a past which cannot be ignored, dismissed, or minimized.

Wal-Mart is touting a heightened sense of corporate social responsibility, “helping people live better worldwide”.  In fact, Wal-Mart was a key sponsor for the Dr. King Memorial.   Wal-Mart says that they are  different now, promising to pay a “competitive” starting wage in DC, promising to hire DC residents in areas with high unemployment, and promising to bring much needed groceries and other goods to our communities. But, so far, they have refused to put any of these promises in writing.  We cannot afford Wal-Mart’s broken promises in the District, where too many residents are already living in poverty.

The Living Wages, Healthy Communities Coalition, which includes many faith, community, labor, and environmental groups from around the city, has been demanding that Wal-Mart sign a binding, enforceable Community Benefits Agreement that includes real standards, so that we can hold Wal-Mart accountable for their words. Our current administration indicates that the City is negotiating something with Wal-Mart, but, as with our previous administration, promises of greater transparency have been abandoned.  Discussions are being held behind closed doors and without community involvement.  This is not the  time for secrets.

It is time to demand more from our elected officials and more for our city. Dr. King’s dream was not just about racial equality; it was also about economic justice—which should be a poignant reminder to sponsor Wal-Mart and to all of us. As we remember the man, we cannot ignore his message, orlose sight of why Wal-Mart in DC matters.

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