1 May 2011
If Wal-Mart is a person, as per the Supreme Court, it's a behemoth terrorizing the countryside. But when it comes to workers' rights, it remains curiously immune from lawsuits.
What is Wal-Mart -- in a strictly taxonomic sense, that is? Based on size alone, it would be easy to confuse it with a nation: In 2002, its annual revenue was equal to or exceeded that of all but 22 recognized nation-states. Or, if all its employees -- 1.4 million in the U.S. alone -- were to gather in one place, you might think you were looking at a major city. But there is also the possibility that Wal-Mart and other planet-spanning, centi-billion-dollar enterprises are not mere aggregations of people at all. They may be independent life-forms -- a species of super-organisms.
This, anyway, seems to be the takeaway from the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court, in a frenzy of anthropomorphism, ruled that corporations are actually persons and therefore entitled to freedom of speech and the right to make unlimited campaign contributions. You may object that the notion of personhood had already been degraded beyond recognition by its extension, in the minds of pro-life thinkers, to individual cells such as zygotes. But the court must have reasoned that it would be discriminatory to let size enter into the determination of personhood: If a microscopic cell can be a person, then why not a brontosaurus, a tsunami, or a multinational corporation?
But Wal-Mart's defense against a class action charging the company with discrimination against its female employees -- Dukes v. Wal-Mart -- throws an entirely new light on the biology of large corporations. The company argues that with "7 divisions, 41 regions, 3400 stores and over one million employees" (in the U.S., as of 2004, when the suit was first launched), it is "impossible" for any small group of plaintiffs to adequately represent a "class" in the legal sense. What with all those divisions, regions, and stores, the experiences of individual employees are just too variable to allow for a meaningful "class" to arise. Wal-Mart, in other words, is too big, too multifaceted and diverse, to be sued.
So if Wal-Mart is indeed a person, it is a person without a central nervous system, or at least without central control of its various body parts. There exist such persons, I admit -- whose brains have lost command over their voluntary muscles -- but they are in a tiny minority. Surely, when the Supreme Court declared that corporations were persons, it did not mean to say "persons with advanced neuromuscular degenerative diseases."
For those who have never visited more than one Wal-Mart store, let me point out that the company is not a congeries of boutiques run by egotistical retailing divas. True, there are detectable differences between stores. Some feature Wal-Mart's indigenous "Radio Grill," famed for its popcorn chicken; others offer McDonald's or Subway. But other than that, every detail, from personnel policies to floor layout, is dictated by corporate headquarters in Bentonville.
An example: In 2000, I worked for three weeks in the ladies' wear department of a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. (Full disclosure: This makes me part of the class now suing Wal-Mart for sex discrimination, though the possibility of an eventual payout in the high two-figure range has not, I think, influenced my judgment on these matters.) In the course of my work, I made a number of sensible suggestions to my supervisor -- for example, that the plus-size women's jeans not be displayed at what was practically floor-level, where plus-size women could not reach them without requiring assistance to regain altitude. Good idea, my supervisor said, but it was up to Bentonville to determine where the jeans, like all other items, resided.
Much has changed since my tenure at Wal-Mart. The company has struggled to upgrade its image from sweatshop to a green and healthful version of Target. It has vowed to promote more women. But one thing it hasn't done, as far as anyone knows, is to reconfigure itself as an anarchist collective. Bentonville still rules absolutely, over both store managers and "associates," which is the winsome Wal-Mart term for its chronically underpaid workers, some of whom report that they are still being forced to work off the clock, for no pay at all, just as I found in 2000.
So if Wal-Mart is a life-form, it is an unclassifiable one, at least in ordinary terrestrial terms. It eats, devouring acre after acre and town after town. It grows without limit, sometimes assuming new names -- Walmex in Mexico, Asda in the U.K. -- to trick the unwary. Yet in its defense in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart suit, Wal-Mart claims to have no idea what it's doing. This could be a metaphor for capitalism or perhaps a sign that a successful alien invasion is in progress. The only thing that's for sure is, should the Supreme Court decide in favor of Wal-Mart, we'll have a lot more of these creatures running around: monstrously oversized "persons" who insist that they can't control their own actions.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of several books, including Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined