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Wal-Mart Gives Workers Justin Timberlake in a Grass Skirt

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I'm exhausted from Wal-Mart's 50th birthday bash held in Fayetteville, Arkansas last Friday for shareholders like me. Reuters described it as an "upbeat event," but aside from the Nashville/Hollywood glitz on the stage -- the event was more of a corporate mea culpa.

I didn't even go -- but I'm exhausted from reading the mainstream media reports about how Wal-Mart has found a new determination to "act the right way," to quote Sam Walton's son, Chairman of the Board, Robson Walton. In light of the Mexi-gate bribery scandal, it's reassuring to know that after half a century, Wal-Mart has discovered "there is no grey area between right and wrong," according to CEO Mike Duke. ""It's either the right thing to do or we shouldn't do it."

For community activists like me, it wasn't Justin Timberlake or Celine Dion who livened up the Wal-Mart party. Instead, it was Wal-Mart's slow-growth pattern from its financial statements that heartened us. Say what you will about Wal-Mart's stock peformance -- the good news is that Wal-Mart is building far fewer superstores than in the past. And what they are building is getting smaller.

Twenty years ago, Wal-Mart was adding a new store every 2.3 days. The company added 158 stores in 1993. From 1992 to 1995, Wal-Mart boosted its U.S. store count by an average of 127 stores per year. But since 2009, the retailer has increased domestic stores by an average of 70 stores per year, a 45% slow-down in growth. In 2011 the company's store count rose by only 49 units, and in 2012 by only 64 stores.

This translates into fewer stores to fight, fewer neighborhoods on the defensive, and fewer headlines about Wal-Mart confrontations.

It also means Wal-Mart Realty has had a chance to focus on filling the "dead stores" the company has accumulated during its major growth years. In 2005, I reported on Sprawl-Busters that Wal-Mart was carrying 356 dead stores, with nearly 27 million square feet of empty space on the market. Today, Wal-Mart Realty has 143 buildings either for sale or lease. More than 60% of these buildings are larger than 100,000 square feet, so it takes a lot of real estate agents to fill up buildings that large.

Typical of what happens to these cast-off buildings is that they sit idle for several years, and then some less productive resuse is made of them. For example, there is a store for lease in Houston, Texas that was 115,348 square feet when Wal-Mart abandoned it. Today a church is leasing 27,843 square feet, and the other 87,508 square feet are empty.

In Derry, New Hampshire, Wal-Mart shut down its discount store, and is building a supersize me directly across the road. Their 120,000 square foot discount store sits empty on 15 acres of land, waiting for someone to lay out $4.65 million to buy it.

On the same day that the Walton family was parading across the stage in Bud Walton Arena, the company they grew unspeakably rich from was quietly settling a federal religious discrimination lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The suit charged that Wal-Mart had threatened to fire a Morman employee who refused to work on the Sabbath---a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As part of its settlement, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $70,000 and train its HR people on how to accommodate the religious practices of its workers.

So perhaps Rob Walton was on the level when he told investors "Acting with integrity is not negotiable. You have my word. We will act the right way."

I wonder if the company will translate that into Spanish?

Finally, as I read the long list of celebrities who performed on stage, I kept wondering how many Wal-Mart workers in the audience could have been decently paid from the retainers charged by Taylor Swift, Lionel Richie, Justin Timberlake, and Celine Dion.

Wal-Mart continues to exploit its workers, and instead of doing the right thing, the company spends its money to buy workers an afternoon with Justin Timberlake in grass hula skirt.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. His book Occupy Walmart was released this month.