It was 50 years ago this month that Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas. In the span of half a century, what had started as a modest local retail establishment has ballooned into a corporation large enough to be responsible for taking $1 of every $4 spent on groceries in America. As news of the megastore's anniversary spreads, many are left to re-examine the imprint that this corporate colossus has carved into the U.S.. After all, it has only been 7 years since Robert Greenwald's seminal documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" slammed the corporation and brought the collective attention of many to its unethical business practices. With the shadow of the recession looming over America's middle and lower classes, the timing of this anniversary could not be worse for the image of the corporate giant.
Among the most onerous of Wal-Mart's practices has been charging its own employees high premiums to participate in the company health plan. At minimum wage (and often working limited hours), most can't afford it. Children of Wal-Mart employees have therefore been forced onto Medicaid in staggering numbers. As the corporation continues to rack up enormous profits, rounding out last year with a mind-numbing net gain of $15 billion. It begs the question as to why such an obscenely profitable entity is not spending a small portion of those profits to provide affordable health care for its employees. Because it is not, American taxpayers are spending $86,000,000 a year on public assistance for them. At a time when states and counties all over the nation are being forced to trim essential services, such corporate irresponsibility is unconscionable.
Wal-Mart's cutthroat tendencies are not limited to withholding health benefits. While managers make decent salaries of up to $70,000 a year, several stores throughout the country had been caught employing illegal immigrants at below minimum wage. Then, there are multiple accounts of gender discrimination to consider. Wal-Mart has been accused of everything from blatant racial profiling to sexist mistreatment of its female employees. And forget unionization. Wal-Mart employees are specifically forbidden from discussing or promoting labor unions, on penalty of dismissal.
The bottom line: Wal-Mart's 50 year anniversary is a timely reminder of a system gone wrong. A system in which the majority of those involved are subordinated and financially enslaved in order for the few who run the company to reap immense profits. And as we stare at this spectacle of greed, we can't help but notice that it's a microcosm of an entire economy which exists to serve the interests of a select few, and not for "We the people," as America's founders intended.