St. Olaf Students Tackle Wal-Mart

Class finds giant retailer's impact embedded in communities, society

Is Wal-Mart the enemy of our society or just a reflection of it?

Click to view larger sizeAbout 200 people flocked to the Lion’s Pause at St. Olaf College Thursday night to witness the symposium: “WalMart America – Changing the Face of Our World”. The event, hosted by Professor Eric Fure-Slocum’s History 297 class (Wal-Mart America), drew a diverse crowd of St. Olaf students, faculty, alumni, and a number of Northfield community members.

The event included presentations of the students' research, ranging from an examination of how people of different faiths respond to Wal-Mart, to Wal-Mart’s impact on local crime rates, to the retailers' shaping of the music industry, to the enormous changes in the U.S. and global economies in recent decades.

The highlight of the evening was a lively panel discussion, moderated by students Max Wojtanowicz ’06 and Anna Gieselman ’06. Panelists [pictured, from left to right] included Rebecca Judge (Professor of Economics at St. Olaf), Ross Currier (Northfield Downtown Development Corporation), and Jenny Shegos (United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789). Shegos is also the local field coordinator for Wake-Up Wal-Mart.

Julie Idelkope, a Wal-Mart representative and Minnesota lobbyist, could not attend due to a scheduling conflict. Without her presence, you might think the evening would turn into a bashing of the giant retailer, but the panelists made it clear there are no easy answers to questions about wages, health care, geographic changes in our country and our expectations and responsibilities as consumers.

When asked why Wal-Mart has become such an enormous target for criticism, the panel pointed to Wal-Mart’s size. According to Judge, 10 percent of all United States imports from China come to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart now has 3,800 stores and sells 25 percent of all drugs sold in the country. Its impact is felt in urban areas, the suburbs and small rural towns.

Shegos commented on the hidden costs that Wal-Mart brings into a community, costs that stem from inadequate health care benefits for their workers, crime that occurs in Wal-Mart parking lots, and other municipal resources that Wal-Mart uses. Judge countered that other retailers offer similar limits on wages and health care options. Shegos said the emphasis is on Wal-Mart because any move by that company would have an impact on all its competitors, while competitors can't pressure Wal-Mart.

Judge repeatedly stressed the need for consumers and citizens to take action if they become displeased with Wal-Mart’s practices. When asked if Wal-Mart could afford to pay their workers more with a slight raise in prices, she responded: “Why would they? If they can pay someone $9.68 an hour (the average wage for a full-time employee) and still get the consumers they want, why would they raise it?” According to Judge, the best routes to change are either through public policy or consumer actions. Citizens can use democratic means to change policy and consumers can influence the market. Wal-Mart wouldn't be a success if consumers didn't choose to shop there.

"I've seen the devil, I've seen the enemy and it's us," Judge said.

Currier added that every consumer purchase is a vote cast for the business in which the purchase is made. He spoke specifically to the effect “big-box” retailers have on small town business, quoting a local business owner who said, “When Target came to town, I adjusted my business plan. When Menards came to town, I adjusted my business plan again. I don’t think I have any adjustments left.” He suggested many students and newcomers to town see Target and Wal-Mart as familiar stores. As a result, they tend to patronize those places. He continued: “Unless people start evaluating their buying decisions on the basis of something other than how many pennies they’re going to save, this juggernaut is going to continue.” The panel session concluded with a brief question and answer session.

Overall, students considered the evening a wonderful success. Shayna Melgaard ’07 said, “Our goal was to begin a dialogue and present people with the information they need to continue that dialogue. And I think we did pretty well.”

David Mahnken is a student at St. Olaf College


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Making the history-sensitive right choices

According to the story, "Citizens can use democratic means to change policy and consumers can influence the market." As most economists and historians would tell you if asked, the ability of the ballot box to change policy and impact the market is limited by the ability and cleverness of shoppers who work around the rules to get what they want. (Think black markets, prohibition and drugs.) That's why I like to proslytize on behalf of the second half of the statement, that being that "consumers can influence the market". This approach, which relies on education and consumer enlightenment, is dead-on target. For example, I was very pleased to find organic produce and products carried by Sam's Club, and I hope that my few nickels spent there on those products will help them continue and expand those product lines. Coops (e.g., Just Foods) can also act as very effective ballot boxes. But the use of raw political power is, in my opinion, a tested and too-often failed tactic.

"Organic Foods"

Morlan,

I love the idea of truly organic foods, but the word "Organic" as is now used is all but meaningless. 

The FDA, USDA have defined organic down so far that chemicals such as MSG and Aspartame are considered organic.

John