Let's Start With Wal-Mart

Taking progressive politics to the mall

I didn’t think it would be Chris.

Chris Jackson has spent most of the last two years in politics. For eight months, he was a field organizer for the Dean campaign in New Hampshire. Then, for the general election, he took a job helping America Votes—a consortium of progressive 527s including America Coming Together, the Sierra Club and the Service Employees International Union—coordinate their operation.

But Chris always came kicking and screaming. After working for Dean, he spent several months on a couch at his parents’ house. Before he decided to get back into politics he had looked at jobs ranging from financial planning in Manhattan to academic research at our very own Kennedy School of Government. When he finally signed on with America Votes, Chris sounded like he was just passing through on his way into the private sector.

Nevertheless, when I started looking around for the next big thing in grassroots organizing, I called Chris. I was looking for a cause that young people could throw their energy into, the way they threw themselves into beating Bush. I wanted to know what young organizers like Chris were going to try next. I was pretty sure the answer would be “i-banking” or “leaving the country,” but I had to try. Most of the people I spoke to said they planned to keep trying to make the country better. But nobody had a project they were really excited about.

When I got through to Chris, I feared the worst. I beat around the bush for a while, then explained why I had called and asked what he was planning to do next. He didn’t miss a beat:

“I’m gonna go organize Wal-Mart.”

For those of you who haven’t spent too much time around the labor movement, this is the equivalent to a mountaineer who’s just failed to summit Mt. McKinley telling a friend he thinks he’ll give Everest a go. But Chris was completely serious, and the more he talked the more it made sense.

American progressives need a big project. In the 1960s, Freedom Summer was that project. Our parents’ generation abandoned their jobs and the glories of college life to bring a little ray of hope to the darkest spot in the struggle for civil rights. It was exactly the wrong place to go. Unlike Tennessee or parts of Georgia, Mississippi didn’t have a history of compromise on racial issues. Mississippians who opposed civil rights were more than willing to use violence, and state authorities were curiously unable to apprehend the criminals who harassed and even killed civil rights workers.

But 800 young people flooded the state in the summer of 1964, and Mississippi’s problems became national news. The country was introduced to a state where only 5 percent of voting age blacks were registered, and this 5 percent faced extreme harassment when they sought to exercise their right. By focusing on one of the most bigoted and brutal states in America, student activists shocked the country into paying attention. They used Mississippi to illustrate the worst that racism was capable of. What our parents did in Mississippi, we can do in the suburbs and rural areas where Wal-Mart is rapidly expanding its hold.

Wal-Mart is more than a particularly egregious violator of workers’ rights. It has become a symbol of corporate excess. A union at Wal-Mart would show that workers can succeed against even the most powerful of corporate giants. Just an attempt to organize Wal-Mart employees would dramatize the gross disparities in wealth that have come to characterize American society. A public struggle between a CEO who takes home several million dollars a year and his employees, earning a little over the $5.15 federal minimum wage, would demonstrate the kind of greed and exploitation that exists all over the American economy.

A Wal-Mart campaign would call on the best instincts of the progressive movement. It would force progressives to focus their energies on the poorest of the working poor: the people who most need help and have the fewest supporters. And it would help the poorest of the poor help themselves. Labor laws are important, but they are no substitute for a strong union that can fight for the real interests of workers. A union at Wal-Mart would do more than any social welfare program to help low wage workers, because it would give the workers themselves the power to decide what they need and demand it from their employers.

Progressives generally want to use the power of government to help the powerless. This focus has led many progressives into electoral politics. But good elected officials and good policies only happen when the people demand them. As the labor movement has declined, the working poor have lost the organ that allowed them to express their voice. They have been unable to elect progressive politicians, and they have been unable to hold politicians accountable. While corporations hire more lobbyists to represent them, a smaller and smaller slice of working Americans have any organized body representing their interests.

The potential effect on politics and the American economy of a Wal-Mart campaign is earth-shattering. Young people need a crusade. We need a movement that calls for the best in us. Let’s start with the toughest challenge out there. Let’s start with Wal-Mart.

Samuel M. Simon ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.