Monday, July 07, 2008 By Aaron Brown
A) This was a great cover story and photo for Al Franken. The picture features Franken speaking to a group of picketers outside the Hibbing Wal-Mart at a protest over the retail giant's decision to hire non-union labor to do a major renovation project at the store. Franken looks like a leader and his comments in the story cement his position as the labor candidate in a strongly labor community like Hibbing. Wal-Mart's corporate office comes across as rather crass, pretending as though they are hiring non-union labor because they're "more qualified" when it's plain to see that this was a financial decision for them. This was a net positive for Franken and the point is valid: the community would be better off if big companies like Wal-Mart supported union employers who paid union wages and benefits.
But then there's the more difficult other side of the story:
B) I didn't honk when I saw the picket line earlier that day, even though I usually honk at every picket line I see. The reason was because I thought it would be hypocritical of me to honk when I was actually driving into the Wal-Mart parking lot.
We don't do all our shopping at Wal-Mart, but we do some. And even if I had honked and driven somewhere else to pay more for the particular product we were buying, I would be doing so for purely political reasons. The vast legions of apolitical, cost-conscious shoppers would still enter the parking lot and buy from Wal-Mart. And that's the flip side to this story. Protests like these bring attention to the important issues of consumer choices and labor standards, but they fail to change anything. Wal-Mart flicks stories like this off its massive shoulder and presses on with its global plan.
The challenge for labor unions in the 21st century is to connect with those people driving into the Wal-Mart parking lot, especially the Wal-Mart employees barred from organizing. I know people who work there and they seem to resent displays like this because they are divisive and, anyway, they know that people will continue to shop there, sometimes late at night when they think no one will see them.
And yes, I know I risk a dressing down from the purists who never, ever set foot in the Wal-Mart, but most of you know that I'm speaking of a hard truth. In a small town where a Wal-Mart has carved out a major share of the retail economy, you don't have many choices on some products. And as poor as Wal-Mart's labor record is, they hire more local people than Amazon.com which is where many of the so-called labor purists (and, again, me) do our shopping for books, DVDs and "modern" goods that aren't available at the mom and pop stores. If you're boycotting Wal-Mart for political reasons, you may as well boycott Target, Amazon and everywhere that uses the same model of keeping costs low. And you better be able to afford a 20 percent hike in your family's expenses, on top of rising food and gas prices.
Al Franken and the local unions are right about this issue. Wal-Mart would have been much more helpful to the community by sticking with the proven union labor that hires local people. But Franken, if and when elected, and the unions also have a hard path ahead of them in accomplishing the kind of fair economic system they want while allowing private industry to remain competitive in the 21st century economy. This is not a simple problem and will require a modern labor movement similar in scope to that of 100 years ago, tailored to the iPod generation.