Sunday, August 27, 2006


Wal-Mart contends that many of its employees have health insurance- because they hire Medicare recipients

Wal-Mart hits the news periodically, and rarely in a good way. Lately it’s the Andrew Young controversy when he resigned as a good will spokesman (!) after he publicly commented that Wal-Mart stores replaced ethnic stereotypes who own the small retail stores in poor communities (including Jews, Koreans, and Arabs).

In recent years the mega-store has become the symbol for everything that’s wrong with unchecked capitalism. They wield so much economic power in local communities- 3,800 stores and rising every day- that it is no longer news when referenda are held to determine if local citizens even want to let them in the door. Their labor policies are abysmal, although their conservative pundit mouthpieces make pious noises about how many people they employ. True, and every job lost from manufacturing and replaced with a Wal-Mart job is another job which increases the taxpayers’ burden for covering health costs of the increasing numbers of Americans without health insurance (45 million and counting), because Wal-Mart will never voluntarily provide health benefits for their employees unless government- i.e., the State of Maryland- compels it to do so.

Here are five good reasons to hate Wal-Mart, some are universal, others tailored to our local store:

1. THREE HUNDRED SIXTEEN BILLION DOLLARS. That’s how much money goes into the giant retailers’ pockets each year, and virtually every dollar is a dollar that would have been spent on local businesses which have been run into the ground- grocers, hardware stores, clothing stores, you name it. It’s rare that a giant Wal-Mart opens in any community without some long time local retailers being run out of business.

2. 1.3 MILLION. That’s how many employees Wal-Mart has, many if not most of whom are now without health care and are earning poverty wages, typically just above the minimum wage. How many of them came from manufacturing and other high paying, good benefit jobs that were outsourced isn’t an available statistic, but the annual increase in Americans without healthcare isn’t a concern for Wal-Mart. One state- Maryland- had the guts to try to fight this burden by passing the following law last year, as reported in the national media

“The Maryland state legislature has passed a law requiring companies with more than 10,000 employees in the state to spend 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or contribute the difference to Maryland's health care program for the poor. The law only affects one employer in the state: Walmart.”

3. THE CHECKOUT COUNTER. I’ve never seen a checkout counter as poorly designed and constructed as the circular device in our local Wal-Mart store. When I go to a regular grocery store or retailer, I never have any doubt as to what and where my store bought items are after I’ve paid for them. At our local Wal-Mart, the fun is just beginning as I try to figure out which of the flimsy white plastic bags on the circular wheel actually have the stuff I just paid for in them, and which are empty waiting for the next customer. I truly wonder how many items Wal-Mart restocks their shelves with that unsuspecting customers left on the wheel.

4. TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS: A sadist must have designed the Ledo Road entrance area to Wal-Mart, or perhaps the local auto body shops got together and decided to increase their business. It seems that since the store opened I can’t play a round of golf at Grand Island, which is right behind the Wal-Mart, without hearing a screech of brakes following by sounds of colliding metal, followed minutes later by sirens- police and ambulance. There is one red light at the far western entrance, and if through some unfortunate set of circumstances an item exists which I can only purchase at Wal-Mart, I try to use the entrance controlled by the traffic light. The eastern entrance on Ledo is where the demolition derby happens.

5. MARY WAIRE. Sixty-nine years old at the time, back in 1993 Mary Waire and her husband were driving north on Interstate 75 from their home in Florida when they stopped in Tifton, Georgia. Mary went to the local Wal-Mart to return a pair of nail clippers she had bought and she tried to get a refund of about three dollars. Mary then spent the next forty days in jail. Not because she had shoplifted the clippers. Not because she had defrauded the store. Not because she stole anything or committed any real crime whatsoever. She spent the next forty days in jail because she was mentally ill and could not correctly remember her home address. At the time, an obscure Georgia law made it a misdemeanor to give a false address to a retail store when requesting a refund. Why this law existed, I have no idea. In my entire career, I have never heard of a prosecution for it before or since. It’s still on the books:

“16-9-56. Fraudulent attempts to obtain refunds.

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to give a false or fictitious ... address or telephone number as that person's own ... for the purpose of obtaining or attempting to obtain a refund for merchandise returned to a business establishment ...

(b) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

But Mary was locked up, and weeks later her husband took a bus to Albany to come hire me to get her out of jail. He was mugged at the bus station, had to go back to Tifton, then came back again and found me. With one phone call to Tifton Attorney Bob Reinhart, who at the time was county attorney, I got her released from jail the same day .

Mary had been locked up because Wal-Mart security called the Tifton police, and acting on Wal-Mart’s complaint that Mary’s address was incorrect from the one she gave the store, they locked her up. Her husband was too poor to afford bail or to hire an attorney. Mary went to court a week later and the local judge- R. R. Buckley- sentenced her to a lengthy jail term, specifying that she would be released once she paid a fine from her Social Security check. Her incompetent appointed attorney was outside in the hallway when Mary pleaded guilty en masse with numerous other defendants. He didn’t know that his client was schizophrenic or that she had not committed any criminal offense (all Georgia crimes require a “mens rea” or criminal intent, which Mary didn’t have in this case). The Court of Appeals later reversed her conviction and vacated her guilty plea after Judge Buckley, being properly apprised of the true state of affairs, refused to do so. You can read the case yourself where it is publicly reported in the Georgia Appeals reporter: WAIRE v. STATE, 211 Ga. App. 69 (1993). Here’s an excerpt:

“Waire was arrested on a charge of fraudulent attempt to obtain a refund in violation of OCGA § 16-9-56. Four days after her arrest and incarceration, Waire entered a plea of not guilty. The trial court appointed the public defender to represent Waire. Waire's counsel testified that he attempted to arrange a plea, but that Waire was unresponsive and that she kept saying her husband would take care of it while she looked around the courtroom. Seven days thereafter, during a mass arraignment, Waire changed her plea from not guilty to guilty, without further consultation with her counsel....

The evidence presented during Waire's hearing on her motion to withdraw her guilty plea, established that Waire was taking several medications for psychological problems. During Waire's testimony, it took her several minutes of questioning before she could remember the name of the state in which the hearing was being held. It is clear that neither Waire's waiver of counsel nor entry of a guilty plea was voluntarily and intelligently entered.

Judgment reversed.”

After I got the case, local publicity blew up and the case went international. Wal-Mart was reviled for putting this little old lady in jail over a pair of nail clippers which she was not even accused of stealing. I was interviewed by media as far away as Canadian Public radio. People in the Waire’s home town of Tampa, Florida, publicly vowed never to shop at Wal-Mart again, and the Tampa daily newspaper took up for Mary’s cause. I got a call from one of the nightly entertainment shows (Inside Edition, I think) asking to book my client and her husband.

Wal-Mart then initiated its own counter-attack in the form of a public relations campaign orchestrated from company headquarters in Benton, Arkansas, attempting to disparage my client’s reputation. I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled that Wal-Mart thought they were going to help themselves by attacking the character of a 69 year old woman who suffered from schizophrenia.

Their campaign didn’t work, but 13 years later the Wal-Mart juggernaut is still going strong, still outsourcing their purchases from the cheapest foreign labor markets they can find to buy their merchandise. As for me, I try to do most of my dry good retail shopping at K-Mart, and I buy my groceries at the former Brunos (Southern Family Markets).


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