Wal-Mart Watch: It's got the whole world in its hands: Indeed, with $256 billion in annual sales and 20 million shoppers visiting its stores each day, Wal-Mart has greater reach and influence than any retailer in history. "In each historical epoch a prototypical enterprise seems to embody a new and innovative set of economic structures and social relationships," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California here and the organizer of the conference. "These template businesses are emulated because they have put in place, indeed perfected for their era, the most efficient and profitable relationship between the technology of production, the organization of work and the new shape of the market." In the 19th century, he said, the standard-setting company was the Pennsylvania Railroad; in the mid-20th century, it was General Motors; and in the late 20th century, it was Microsoft. Today's prototypical company, he declared in opening the conference, is Wal-Mart, which, he said, rezones American cities, sets wage standards and even conducts diplomacy with other nations. "In short, the company's management legislates for the rest of us key components of American social and industrial policy," Mr. Lichtenstein said. Wal-Mart has created a very different model from General Motors, he added, noting that G.M. helped build the world's most affluent middle class by paying wages far above the average and by providing generous health and pension plans. Mr. Lichtenstein said G.M.'s wage pattern spurred other companies to raise compensation levels, while Wal-Mart's relatively low wages and benefits — its workers average less than $18,000 a year — were doing just the opposite. The company's pay scale and hard-nosed labor practices, said Simon Head, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of "The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age" (Oxford University Press, 2003) mean that "Wal-Mart is certainly a template of 21st-century capitalism, but a capitalism that increasingly resembles a capitalism of 100 years ago." He added, "It combines the extremely dynamic use of technology with a very authoritarian and ruthless managerial culture." We need to build a vision and a world that are better than Wal-Mart's.


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