A decade ago, people who objected to a Wal-Mart in their town were left groping in the dark about how to fight a developer who knew the game better than most. Now there are at least a half-dozen books offering detailed observations of Wal-Mart, there are at least three documentary films about communities taking on Wal-Mart and there is at least one professional foe, Al Norman, who offers consulting services to folks who want to fight a Wal-Mart.
All of this is available by outsourcing, just as Wal-Mart does. Only instead of getting the goods from a Third World sweatshop, opponents of the store can get the goods on Wal-Mart from the World Wide Web.
"You've got resources online to compare what you are facing with other communities. And the ability to quickly contact someone who has done the same thing as you," says John Dicker, a former staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent (and the man behind Kenneth Cleaver) who published The United States of Wal-Mart last summer. "And you can learn about failures -- communities that didn't succeed, and why."
Dicker himself has become a figure in the anti-Wal-Mart industry, being called upon as an expert observer by other journalists (including this one), being interviewed on radio and television and being asked to write guest editorials in the Boston Globe.
"It wouldn't totally surprise me if it was an industry," Dicker says of the anti-Wal-Mart movement. "I have not seen anybody market themselves to take down Wal-Mart except for Al Norman, who says he doesn't make a living doing it."
Norman, on his Web site, www.sprawl-busters.com, has unsmiling photos of himself as "Wal-Mart's No. 1 Enemy!" and, with a pair of oversized boxing gloves, posed next to "The Books Wal-Mart Doesn't Want You To Read!" There is an almost infomercial tone to his copy, which feeds the hysteria of Wal-Mart as the Single Biggest Danger to the Planet!
Wal-Mart has become so huge and so powerful, Dicker notes, that it has become a threat to the environment -- a killer of wetlands, a clogger of arterials, a driver-downer of property values. It is a union buster. It is a sweatshop booster. It keeps people in poverty. It rips the beating heart out of small-town America and smiles as it licks the blood off its fingers. In other words, Wal-Mart has become so big and so evil that its opponents sometimes lose sight of what it is they are fighting.
"One of the things I observed is the most effective way to keep Wal-Mart out of a community is not to turn it into a referendum of what is bad for America," Dicker says.
Places like Hood River, Ore., or Escondido, Calif., have fought off Wal-Mart successfully. "They have scrutinized traffic studies and environmental impact statements and how the store jibes with the county's master plan." Dicker says. "All these unsexy issues are more likely to sway the people [i.e., planners, commissioners, hearing examiners] who are making the decision."
Dicker takes issue with the Robert Greenwald film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price because "It ends with a feel-good montage of Wal-Marts taken on and won" without noting that joining battle is all about learning the eye-glazing ins and outs of land use and comprehensive planning and infrastructure impacts.
People also get caught up in (often wrong-headed and beside-the-point) class warfare when it comes to Wal-Mart, sniffing that the stores patronize poor people by offering only cheap goods. As if Thurston Howell III would seek out only the most expensive place to buy paper towels and T-shirts.
"At the same time, Wal-Mart opponents tend to dismiss or overlook how Wal-Mart benefits poor people," Dicker says. "They offer services that low-income people appreciate and find useful, especially in the context of other major retail stores that have abandoned the inner city" and the rural poor.
"When CEO Lee Scott talks about Wal-Mart pushing into banking because many of their customers don't have savings accounts, is this self-serving?" Dicker asks. "Yes. But would it also be good for a lot of people? Yes. That is the complexity of Wal-Mart," Dicker says.
So when you get ready to fight a giant, he suggests, remember to focus on the little things.