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Retail giant criticized for policies

Peter Ninneman | Monday, October 31, 2005

Whether they were wearing Wal-Mart’s trademark blue vest or lambasting the company, distinguished professors, Notre Dame students, a union representative and the mayor of South Bend joined together to discuss issues surrounding the world’s largest retail company in the Jordan Auditorium of Mendoza Saturday.

The conference, organized and moderated by undergraduates in the College of Arts and Letters and the Mendoza College of Business, started with a lecture by Susan Soisson, an assistant program manager in Mendoza. Soisson spoke to the Saturday morning crowd about the history of Wal-Mart, as well as aspects of its philanthropy and technology.

“It serves a purpose,” she said. “Wal-Mart does contribute.”

Although she was wearing a Wal-Mart vest, Soisson did not solely praise the company. She discussed how even philanthropic aspects of the company had some catches. And she said society ends up paying for the healthcare costs of Wal-Mart employees.

Dr. Steven Ashby, an associate professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University, followed Soisson with by far the most critical assessment of the giant corporation of the day. Ashby once served as executive director of Northwest Indiana’s Calumet Project, a labor-community coalition that advocates for workers’ rights.

“There is clearly a Wal-Mart policy to get people to quit,” he said.

Ashby also postulated that Wal-Mart is just one example of the problems of labor relations in the United States.

He said nationalized health care would be a huge improvement in the United States, and that laborers in Sweden had it much better than their American counterparts.

The third expert – known in some circles as the “Wal-Mart man” – was Dr. Kenneth Stone, professor emeritus of Economics at Iowa State University. Stone spoke of the effects Wal-Mart has on the communities it moves in to.

Stone said the types of companies that can survive Wal-Mart are those that are “selling something different” and can benefit from traffic spillover from the retail giant.

The conference also featured three undergraduate students reading their respective research papers on Wal-Mart issues, ranging from the impact on one student’s hometown to the history of Wal-Mart’s dealings with attempted unionization of its workers to different frameworks for viewing Wal-Mart.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion featuring Soisson, Scott Barnett of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 700, professor emeritus of economics at Notre Dame Charles Craypo, South Bend mayor Steve Luecke and Dr. Paul Mishler, an assistant professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University of South Bend.