Wal-Mart Wins a Battle, But the War Continues

On July 19 a federal court judge struck down Maryland's "Wal-Mart Law." That's the law cooked up by the nation's labor unions to force Wal-Mart to pay 8 percent of payroll into employee health benefits or be taxed for the difference.

In recent years labor unions have been finding that the "first dollar"health plans they bargained for and won years ago are coming under terminal threat from cost-conscious companies like Wal-Mart. They figure that forcing up Wal-Mart's costs is a pill that will spell relief for its unionized competitors.

Of course the judge did not rule on for or against "first dollar" union health plans. Nor did he say that the Wal-Mart law was a direct attack on Wal-Mart's eternal quest to deliver Everyday Low Prices to its customers. He merely ruled on the narrow ground that Maryland's "Fair Share" Law violated the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

It is a very human impulse to try to force the world to pay your bills, to stake out the land and declare that what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable. It's the most natural thing in the world for a robber baron to build a castle on a mountain pass and prey on all the travelers passing by. Many people think that the only way they can get what they need is to take it.

But our age has vomited up a paradoxical idea opposed to the age-old ethics of the raider and the robber baron. It proposes that the way to get on in the world is to give to the world. Instead of hoarding your wealth and snatching other people's wealth, you build and offer to the world cool products at great prices — or even ordinary products at Everyday Low Prices. You don't go to the government to get special subsidies for your business. You don't agitate to get exemptions from the laws on combinations in restraint of trade because you are a labor union. Instead you just work away at making your product better and better so that people will still want to buy it.

Many people do not get this. In Mexico City the disappointed supporter of defeated presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador wails that AMLO was "the only one with a heart, who cares for the people." In the United States, Democratic politicians believe that the only way for working families to obtain a decent standard of living is to squeeze it out of the rich and the corporations. These people do not believe that the world returns gifts with increase.

To believe that the world is a bounteous place you need faith, sometimes a lot of faith. That is why religious entrepreneurs have been offering for quite a while the idea of a loving God who cares about you. Secular prophets have advanced a slightly different idea: the Invisible Hand that seems to guide the actions of people to "promote the public interest" by pursuing their own ends in the lawful market.

To keep this faith it helps if you have something to give. Many of us fear that we have nothing to give the world, and so, just to be on the safe side, we attach ourselves to some political robber baron who promises to take from the world what we need by force — or, to use the modern euphemism, by government program and beneficial legislation.

Entry-level Wal-Mart employees are not, you would think, people with very much to give. Logically they ought to combine behind a charismatic union leader and force Wal-Mart to give them more. Yet Barbara Ehrenreich, when she worked for Wal-Mart for a month to research her book Nickeled and Dimed, found it hard to persuade her fellow employees to take what they deserved by voting for a labor union.

The fact is that lots people want to work for Wal-Mart. Usually, when Wal-Mart opens a new store it expects to get about 3,000 applications for the three hundred jobs. Sometimes things can get a little out of hand. When Wal-Mart opened a store just outside the city limits of Chicago recently, 25,000 people sent in applications for the 325 jobs that opened up.

The battle over Wal-Mart is a real contest between two world views contesting for ascendency. One view experiences the world as a battle for survival in which you carve out in blood the best deal you can using power and solidarity. The other experiences the world as a cornucopia of plenty. In that world what you get depends on what you give.

If the truth is somewhere in between, where would you draw the line?