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Al Norman's Occupy Walmart: What the Debate Is Really About

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It has been more than three years since I locked the doors on Walmart Watch, an organization where I was proud to serve as executive director. Since then, Walmart's image has benefited from a lot of waxy polish and less attention, until last week. When the New York Times story on allegations of Walmart bribery in Mexico broke, it once again shined a spotlight on the hidden corners of Walmart's operations. The story revealed the same flawed corporate culture that resulted in so many of the poor decisions that Walmart Watch highlighted over the years. Walmart has these kinds of problems and will continue to have these kinds of problems because its corporate culture diminishes the contributions of the people and the communities it pretends to serve, including its shareholders, which is why it has become a focus of the "Occupy" movement.

Al Norman's new book Occupy Walmart, a collection of his essays written over the years, is timely because it reminds the reader of the fundamental flaws at Walmart that create problems like those exposed by the New York Times. The collection of Al's stories makes it nearly impossible to accept Walmart's argument that the alleged bribery scandal is an aberration. Walmart's behavior matters because like everything else about the company, it affects all of us. Walmart's influence is so large that the debate about Walmart's behavior is a debate about how all corporations should behave and ultimately about what role American's want corporations to have in their lives.

Walmart may not want to be part of that debate. In fact, they may not want there to be a debate at all, but the debate has been brought to center stage in the last year in America. Norman uses several examples in the book to expose symptoms of Walmart's disregard for anything but its majority stakeholders -- the Walton family. There are examples of how Walmart diminishes their employees by devaluing their labor and even their lives; how they depress the communities they serve by avoiding taxes; how they disregard the American economy by undermining their suppliers expressed interest to maintain operations in the United States.

What Norman does so cleverly though, and why he is such a dangerous critic of the company, is to show that these are just symptoms. That, in the aggregate, these behaviors reveal a culture that seeks to actively prevent the public's role in determining corporate behavior and most insidiously lowers the expectations of how much of a role the public should have in determining appropriate corporate behavior. As Al points out, the result is a culture that favors exploitation and makes mistakes like the ones alleged in Mexico.

Norman concludes at the beginning of the book that "its all about corporate power, about the 1% corporate leaders who have amassed enormous wealth by exploiting people and resources along the chain of production." Perhaps the book assumes more than I would that the amassing of wealth is a bad thing. Our economy encourages people to amass wealth. I myself run my own company these days.

The real issue, I believe, is about who gets to decide the rules of the game. Government is the traditional and expected channel to protect the public interest but that role has been diminished by corporations acting in their own best interests to pressure government to reduce regulation. So in Occupy what we are seeing is an attempt to fill the resulting vacuum over the role that corporations are having in their lives. In the current era, that conversation started with Walmart.

To attempt to assert such control suggests public expectations that are higher than the status quo. It is raised expectations more than anything else that threatens Walmart's business model. This is why Walmart has fought unions, why they have opposed local citizens groups (the kind Al Norman has trained), why they have denied lawsuits at any price. Higher expectations are about choice and its ironic that a store that seeks to offer its consumers so much choice is actually stripping it away by denying them the choice that matters most about what kind of communities they want to live in. On almost every issue, Walmart has rejected higher expectations, except one.

In some of the now infamous reports released by Walmart Watch, we exposed McKinsey's advice to Walmart that it should focus on the environment as an issue because it would help deflect the critics like us, and could also be good for the bottom line. Walmart listened and has used their influence on their suppliers and changed some of their own operations to force some real changes. In the long run, this benefits Walmart and there is nothing wrong with doing good and doing well at the same time. We pressured Walmart to change and they opened a conversation with environmental organizations. Out of that grew some changes in behavior. If only that example were followed more widely within the company, Walmart might change its corporate culture.

Unfortunately, the Mexico allegations if true reveal that Walmart cannot even follow the rules we have. Eduardo Castro-Wright apparently decided that he was going to spread around Walmart's money to buy an override of local rules and preferences violating Mexican and American laws. Al's book shows us that what the Occupy debate is about is how much influence or not people should have in changing the rules in America.