Don't let Wal-Mart off the hook

May 05, 2010

The Sun is right to question the worth of Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's legislation requiring Wal-Mart to pay a "living wage" to employees ("Another Wal-Mart bill?" May 5). However, the issue is hardly as simple as a local lawmaker being "unfair" to a giant, predatory corporation.

Some of The Sun's rhetorical questions are well-aimed: indeed, why single out Wal-Mart when so many other business pay low wages? It's probably a safe bet that Ms. Clarke did not sit down and analyze the national and global economic situations before proposing her bill. Then again, no-one who knows her style could be surprised. Whether facing down an assisted living home in the name of oppressed Roland Parkers or speaking out in defense of Hampden merchants against methadone users' right to seek treatment, Ms. Clarke always strives to be a voice for her constituents — or at least the most vocal of them — even when they descend into narrow-mindedness and NIMBYism.

In this case, the requirement that Wal-Mart pay a living wage seems much less an effort to champion the working class than it is to throw up obstacles to Wal-Mart's colonization of Remington. Once again, Ms. Clarke fights on behalf of the familiar coalition of local merchants.

All that said, The Sun's curt dismissal of the living wage issue can hardly be the last word. Wal-Mart is not just another employer; it is a corporation whose practices have re-shaped American society. Wal-Mart's very success is deeply intertwined with the decline of real wages in the U.S.A. since the Reagan era. For three decades, low-paid people trying to make ends meet have been shopping there, helping Wal-Mart to foster the growth of Chinese industry and the decay of American manufacturing, which in turn creates more people who need to shop at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps Ms. Clarke's new "Wal-Mart bill" is not the way to stop this vicious cycle of low prices, low wages and industrial decline. But it seems that if we are not all to become serfs of the Walton clan and the Chinese rulers (strange bedfellows, but bedfellows they are), a way must be found.

Mark Chalkley, Baltimore

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