To the Editor
It may be tactically, useful for local organizers to argue that the controversy surrounding the size cap initiative in Damariscotta is not about Wal-Mart but a deeper examination of what’s at stake, not just for our community, but for our society at-large, might suggest otherwise. This is not about demonizing the giant retailer, but about looking at what Wal-Mart epitomizes as a model of economic growth, and the consequences of that model for those generations coming of age in the 21st century.
Wal-Mart is the avatar of an economic revolution that began with the oil crisis in 1973. Over the past three decades, the industrial infrastructure that has sustained the United State as the world’s most powerful economy, dating from the late 19th century, has been dismantled and transferred to more profitable surroundings beyond our frontiers. Why indeed would mega-investors tie up their capital in factories operated by the largest of the world’s best paid work forces, when they could produce the same goods so much more cheaply elsewhere for wages at a fraction of what they had become accustomed to paying here? Big Box Economics, piloted by Wal-Mart, is not the cause but the consequence, of these structural transformations, as capital. released from its rigid territorial moorings and made fluid, speeds around the globe in search of maximum profitability.
Despite the well-intentioned jeremiads of populist gadflies like the film maker, Michael Moore, those “out-sourced” industrial and manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Instead, the unprecedented prosperity that the U.S. has known from the end of World War II until, say, the close of the Reagan years, accompanied by the creation of a consuming middle class that has been the envy of the world, is now seemingly in irreversible decline. Baby boomers who grew up believing that their generation, and each subsequent generation, would he better off than that which preceded them, are being rapidly disabused of that utopian ideal. The “race to the bottom,” is now in full parade and the economic distance separating the “Haves” from the “Have-Nots” increases exponentially with every passing day.
The better jobs in high tech and advanced information-based industries, available through the advantages of higher education, will cull a certain percentage from the ranks of the middle class and help preserve their standard of living. Whereas many in the former decently-compensated industrial or manufacturing work forces will undergo a “third worldization” nowhere more evident than in states on the nation’s periphery, like Maine, whose economies were never fully industrialized in the first place. Leaving aside self-contained sectors of privilege whose numbers can sustain “the way life should be” with upper range professional and business incomes or private resources, Maine's overall economy, based on extraction (from forest and sea) and tourism, already parodies that of a small Third World nation. With the mills gone south, and with them the modest pension and health care benefits once considered integral to an American worker’s basic compensation package, the Big Box service sector is primed to absorb the mid to low ends of the blue collar labor market at a discount rate far greater than the alleged savings they offer their consumers.
For months now we've learned through this paper and, elsewhere of all the attendant drawbacks an enterprise like Wal-Mart can forecast for a community like ours. Seen in this context, the current campaign around the size cap is a positive strategy. Here especially in the more affluent midcoast region substantial collective energy has been gathered and focused on finding solutions that avoid the chaotic sprawl that inevitably accompanies unchecked Big Box development. Here we can afford such a preservationist agenda, since so many residents from our surrounding communities are disinclined to shop at Wal-Mart, much less depend on it for employment. But what if those who oppose bringing Wal-Mart to Damariscotta and our sister communities also accepted some responsibility for the circumstances that require others less fortunate to depend on this and other Big Box retailers for their necessities and their livelihood, and started thinking “outside the box,” so to speak going beyond our own interests in preserving whatever remains of our bucolic surroundings and the scale of our commercial life? What form might that thinking take?
First, you must assume, as I do, that the Big Box economy is not going away. The facts support this assumption. This year in the U.S. alone Wal-Mart, for one, will add 280 new supercenters to its existing roster of nearly 2000 such stores. All evidence points to robust growth and continued high profits for Wal-Mart and its ilk among the retail giants for the immediate future. The challenge then will be to transcend a town by town defense, and take our campaign into the wider arenas of regional, state, national and even global politics. The main target of this offensive will be the obscene profits that Big Box economics generates for the benefit of an increasingly smaller and smaller social base to the detriment of the labor market and the entire community. If campaigns like ours were to continue, whether or not we secure our local victories, we might eventually rein in the power of Big Boxes, limit, or ideally reverse, their destructive impact on the long term economic, social and cultural health of our citizens and their communities.
Bad jobs in the Big Box sphere need to be transformed into better jobs. Local tax subsidies need to be denied, or tied to genuine concessions that benefit the community, not just the retailer. Social costs to taxpayers in the form of health care and aid to dependent families need to be shifted to the Big Box enterprises. We must direct our representatives in government to legislate the necessary laws and safeguards to harness Big Box economics toward social ends that protect both workers and our communities at large.
But ultimately the Big Box “associates,” both here and abroad, need to fight on their own behalf, to organize their labor power toward winning concessions in both wages and benefits, that will certainly cut into Big Box profits. Then it will be up to industries like Wal-Mart whether they want to pass these higher labor costs on to consumers and undermine their market shares, or put the squeeze on the stock¬holders who might just have to be satisfied with a little less.
Michael Uhl, Ph.D., Walpole