SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — It’s 74 degrees, the sun is shining and the parking lots are filling up at the two new Wal-Mart Supercenters here.
A few days ago a third Supercenter opened about 15 minutes away in Urbana. Within 26 miles there are nine Wal-Mart stores.
According to Democrats, this is a disaster for the region, which had the only county in the swing state of Ohio in 2004 to switch its presidential vote from Democrats to Republicans, thus re-electing President Bush.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, does not provide health insurance to new workers although eventually they may purchase it. The company pays on average $10.11 an hour to its employees (the federal minimum wage is $5.15). That’s a pre-tax income of about $20,200 a year.
When unions have tried to unionize Wal-Mart workers to demand higher wages and better benefits, the company has driven them out. Local businesses, claiming they can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s one-stop shopping, low prices, convenient hours and ease of parking, often unite to try to keep Wal-Mart out of their communities.
The city council in South Side Chicago recently blocked Wal-Mart from moving in, fearing it would put small retailers out of business. Wal-Mart responded by opening a store just outside city limits in Evergreen Park. (Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said in a speech a few days ago that 25,000 people applied for 325 jobs at that store.)
Wal-Mart insists its stores are the best thing to happen to the “everyday” man and woman. Its motto: “In everything we do, we’re driven by a common mission: To improve the quality of life for everyday people around the world.”
It employs 1.8 million people around the world (1.3 million in the United States), has opened 6,500 stores (3,800 of them in the U.S.) and claims to serve 176 million global customers a week. Sales in June were $33 billion, up 10 percent from a year ago.
Democrats and unions this month have opened a new campaign against Wal-Mart, with rallies and bus tours organized in such states as Iowa, where the 2008 presidential campaign already has begun.
Four Democratic presidential aspirants, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana, Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, are among politicians complaining about Wal-Mart. Biden said in Des Moines, “My problem with Wal-Mart is that I don’t see any indication that they care about the fate of middle-class people. They talk about paying them $10 an hour. That’s true. How can you live a middle-class life on that?”
The others say Wal-Mart has become symptomatic of economic anxiety among millions of Americans.
Wal-Mart has come out swinging. The company is sending letters to employees in early presidential campaign states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina saying that while it “would never suggest” how employees should vote, it does want them to know that some candidates have their facts wrong about Wal-Mart.
The company’s vice president of corporate communications, Bob McAdam, said: “The paid critics and the politicians who join them at these publicity stops are attacking the wrong company and should stop telling working families where to shop and work.”
He added, “It’s surprising to see candidates take part in attacks that are rejected even by the base voters they need to win. We believe that playing to a small, increasingly special-interest audience at the expense of working families will prove to be a failed strategy.”
Out of net income of $10 billion a year, Wal-Mart says it will give $500,000 over the next two years to local chambers of commerce in 10 regions to help small businesses learn to “thrive” when a Wal-Mart moves in offering cheaper prices.
Democrats have a valid point in arguing that the middle-class family is stressed. But they will not win new votes by reaffirming their old stereotype as the anti-business party or by telling people who are barely scrapping by not to shop at Wal-Mart. A mother with a minimum-wage job is not going to pay $7.99 for a shirt for her second-grader when she can buy the same shirt for $3 at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart is not the best employer in America, and it may well be one factor contributing to the demise of small-downtown America. But the problems of the middle-class, the working poor and the uninsured are far deeper than Wal-Mart’s employment policies. Wal-Mart claims it saves the average family shopping at its stores $2,300 a year. Biden, Bayh, Richardson and Vilsack need to get off the bus and do the math. If 127 million people each week feel Wal-Mart makes their life better, how many of them will run to the polls to support a candidate who shakes his fist at their beloved Supercenter?
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)