A Prize Paradox

by Don Boudreaux on May 25, 2004

in The Economy

The Sidney Hillman Foundation recently announced the 2004 Sidney Hillman Prize winners. This is an annual prize that recognizes “journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good.” An award is given each year in several categories, including books, newspaper journalism, and photo-journalism.

The 2004 winner in the newspaper-journalism category is “The Wal-Mart Effect” by Nancy Cleeland, Abigail Goldman, Evelyn Iritani and Tyler Marshall, appearing in the Los Angeles Times.

As summarized by the Hillman Foundation,

This in-depth Pulitzer winning series explains Wal-Mart’s quest for “everyday low prices” and what that means for working men and women in the United States – and around the world. Wal-Mart, “the world’s largest retailer,” is now a global economic force, pitting vendor against vendor and contractor against contractor to drive down prices. The series is a powerful look at a powerful company – examining everything from Wal-Mart’s history, vision and health care benefits to its procurement strategies, from the workers in Bangladesh who toil relentlessly for shameful wages to the U.S. supermarkets crushed under the competition, forced to lay off thousands. It illustrates the paradox of union members shopping there to snap up deals while labor organizers aimlessly try to organize Wal-Mart employees and communities attempt to keep the retailer out. “Wal-Mart gives. And Wal-Mart takes away,” say the authors. This series explores that very observation in a myriad of ways.

One line in the above summary is particularly striking: “the paradox of union members shopping there [at Wal-Mart] to snap up deals while labor organizers aimlessly try to organize Wal-Mart employees and communities attempt to keep the retailer out.” This line nicely captures one of the chief tensions in the so-called (and terribly misnamed) “progressive” agenda. Contrary to the claim of the Hillman Foundation, the paradox is not that individuals choose to shop for bargains at Wal-Mart and to work for Wal-Mart on mutually agreeable terms while officious busybodies undertake political action aimed at making these options less accessible. That’s a lamentable irony, not a paradox.

The real paradox is the “progressive” wish for abundant, high-paying jobs, combined with a simultaneous knee-jerk allegiance to “community” efforts to chill economic change – in this case, “to keep out the retailer.”

What, after all, is the point of organizing Wal-Mart employees into a labor union if other “activists” succeed in keeping Wal-Mart out?


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