Warring against Wal-Mart
Religion & Liberty Online

Warring against Wal-Mart

The big box giant Wal-Mart is under attack again, this time by a coalition of varied opponents. The group, named “Wal-Mart Watch,” took out an ad in The New York Times last Wednesday, accusing the retailer “of low pay and meager employee benefits that force their workers to rely on Medicaid, food stamps, and federal housing to survive,”.

The Sierra Club, which has long opposed urban sprawl, is one of the groups involved with Wal-Mart Watch. This ad campaign is the latest in a series of scathing critiques of Wal-Mart. The May issue of Christianity Today contains an article detailing some of the efforts of Christian activists questioning the practices of the chain, “Deliver Us from Wal-Mart?” by Jeff M. Sellers.

And that’s not all. Bread For the World’s Hunger Report 2005 (PDF; page 24) contains a short article rebuking Wal-Mart. Here’s the text:

Box Half Empty—or Box Half Full?

An increasingly common feature of rural landscapes these days is the big “box store,” most notably Wal-Mart. When Wal-Mart comes to town to break ground on a new store, it is hard not to notice the impact right away.

In Harrisville, Utah, population 2,000, a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter swallowed up 212,000 square feet of rural fields. In Robert, Louisiana, a town of 900, the arrival of a Wal-Mart distribution center in 2001 required 34-acres of concrete poured over pasture and woodlands.

Proponents of Wal-Mart argue that the giant retail chain offers employment opportunities to rural communities that would not have existed otherwise. Others find this development more troubling. In Robert, many were not at all happy about the extra 400 trucks pulling into town each day exclusively on behalf of the Wal-Mart. The new store caused such a stir one resident characterized the way it divided the town as “almost like a Civil War.”

Not only is Wal-Mart now the nation’s largest employer, with 1.2 million workers on its payroll, but the mega-store is also expanding at a rapid rate into new markets and putting its stamp on rural America. Take, for instance, groceries. Whereas most grocery store workers are covered by benefits packages, Wal-Mart does not have a pension program for its 1.2 million workers, and the health care coverage it offers is expensive.

Perhaps the most problematic of Wal-Mart’s policies is the company’s active discouragement of unionization, which puts its competitors with unionized workers at a significant financial disadvantage.

It’s not hard to see why Wal-Mart would like to blend into rural America. In urban areas, and even many suburban areas, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find enough open land needed to build one of these giant stores. And once the Arkansas-based company draws a bead on a new location, seldom can a community do much more than stand back and watch as its world suddenly changes.

There’s obviously a number of issues to be concerned with here, including international trade, environmental stewardship, and the ethics of labor and wages.

With special reference to the question of urban sprawl, I’ll point you to the Controversy in the Spring 2003 edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality between Charles C. Bohl and Mark Pennington, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.