Scott maintains this populist posture throughout our conversation to the point of self-parody, waxing lyrical about how the arrival of Wal-Mart to various inner cities has brought hope and opportunity. To illustrate, Scott begins to tell a tale about Baldwin Hills, California—when his handler, Mona Williams, a soothing but steely PR veteran with a lilting southern accent, leans forward and interjects.
“Baldwin Hills is on the edge of Watts, just to give you a picture,” she says.
“You remember the movie Training Day?” Scott asks. “It was shot a mile and a half from that store.”
“Scary, scary movie,” Williams mutters, aghast at the memory. “That movie scared me to death.”
“Well,” Scott says, “I went into a store in Los Angeles and met this young African-American lady, asked her when she started at Wal-Mart. She said she started two years ago, when we opened in Baldwin Hills, as an hourly associate, not having any idea of what her future held because jobs were so tough. And in two years, she’s already been promoted to the assistant-manager program and her life has changed.”
Scott leans back, slaps his leg, and uncorks a satisfied smile.
“You don’t make those stories up,” he says. “And there’s thousands of stories like that.”
There are indeed lots of stories about Wal-Mart and its workers, few of them so luminous. (And there will be even more come this fall, when Robert Greenwald, the guerrilla documentarian of Outfoxed fame, releases his next film, Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost.) Though the company is America’s largest employer, it is hardly the most generous, paying on average just $9.68 an hour, providing health insurance to fewer than half its workers, and requiring those who do receive coverage to cough up a third of the cost. I ask Scott about an observation made by both Times columnist Tom Friedman and former Labor secretary Robert Reich: that while Wal-Mart’s business savvy and low prices may cause us to admire it as consumers, its miserliness inspires scorn from us as citizens and workers.
“The argument’s baloney,” Scott snaps, displaying a rare flash of irritation. “Somebody asked me the question, ‘Why don’t you pay everyone a minimum of $12 an hour?’ And my question is, ‘Why $12? Why not $20?’ The next question is, of course, ‘Well, why not $20?’ But I think there are countries that have tried that and it didn’t work well. I mean, look at Europe!”
Scott then notes that Wal-Mart pays nearly double the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. And that its benefits compare favorably with those of its retailing rivals. All in all, Scott proclaims, “we consider ourselves progressive.”
I suggest that Scott’s definition of the term is one that most New Yorkers—nay, most of blue America—would fail to recognize. I ask whether, given this, he really believes that Wal-Mart is a good cultural fit with the city.
“Is there an inherent bias against people from the South among the elite in New York? I can’t imagine that!” Scott says with a laugh. “Though I did grow up watching Green Acres.” He continues, “I get a lot of letters from people in New York, and some are not particularly pleasant. But I also get a lot that say they agree with the mayor that the consumer ought to be the one who makes the final choice. The people I deal with in New York, like Paul Charron, who runs Liz Claiborne—of course, Paul’s from Kentucky originally—as they get acquainted with Wal-Mart, they find a great deal to respect. And as people get to know us, this whole issue of red state–blue state, or urban and nonurban, most of that goes away.”
Maybe, maybe not—but we’ll never know when it comes to New York unless Wal-Mart manages to hurdle the initial wall of opposition. “These things move in cycles,” Scott concludes, striking a note of Realpolitik. “The power moves. The influence moves. The economy moves. And when things are booming, maybe it’s easier to say no. But when things are tougher, and people are driving to Secaucus to shop at Wal-Mart, and sales-tax dollars are leaving the community, common sense will prevail.”
Before I flew down to Bentonville—one sign of Wal-Mart’s gravitational pull is that you can get there nonstop from La Guardia—Mona Williams had expressed some frustration with the press’s treatment of the company. (Scott had made his own feelings known a few months before, when he told the Associated Press that he felt like he was being “nibbled to death by guppies.”) Displaying a certain unfamiliarity with New York media dynamics, Williams seemed most worried not about the tabloids or the Times but about a scathing piece in December in the New York Review of Books. (“NYRB seems to be a ‘thinking person’s’ publication,” she fretted to me in one e-mail.) By inviting me to Bentonville, Williams said, the company’s aim was “to frame this debate in a smarter direction.”