WAL-MART'S TALE OF TWO CITIES: FROM BENTONVILLE TO SHENZHEN
By Nelson Lichtenstein
New Labor Forum 15:2, Summer 2006, 9-19
A GLOBALIZED WORLD OF COMMERCE AND LABOR HAS EXISTED FOR
CENTURIES. THE Vanderbilts and the Victorians knew all about the China trade. But today's
globalization differs radically from that of even a few decades past because of the contemporary
role played by the corporate king-makers of our day, the big box retail chains that now occupy
the strategic heights once so well-garrisoned by the great manufacturing firms of the Fordist era.
At the crux of the global supply chains stand the Wal-Marts, the Home Depots, and the
Carrefours of our time.
They make the markets, set the prices, and determine the worldwide
distribution of labor for that gigantic stream of commodities that now flows across their counters.
The deindustrialization of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland entailed not just the destruction of a
particular set of industries and communities, but the shift of power within the structures of world
capitalism from manufacturing to a retail sector that today commands the supply chains which
girdle the earth and directs the labor power of a working class whose condition replicates much
that we once thought characteristic of only the most desperate, early stages of capitalist growth.
All this is graphically apparent upon a visit to the two most dynamic nodes of transnational
capitalism today. It is easy to get to Bentonville, Arkansas, where Wal-Mart has its world
headquarters in an unimpressive, low-slung building hard by the company's original warehouse.
There are lots of direct flights from Denver, Chicago, La Guardia, and Los Angeles to this once
remote Arkansas town. It is still not very big. Between Fayetteville and the Missouri line there
are hardly more than 300,000 people. But it is now the fastest growing metropolitan region in the
country. The parking lots are full, the streets crowded, and new construction everywhere. Most
important, Bentonville is now home to at least 500 branch offices of the largest Wal-Mart
"vendors" who have planted their corporate flag in Northwest Arkansas in the hopes that they
can maintain or increase their sales to the world's largest buyer of consumer products. Proctor &
Gamble, which in 1987 may well have been the first company to put an office in Northwest
Arkansas, now has a staff of nearly 200 there; likewise Sanyo, Levi Strauss, Nestle, Johnson and
Johnson, Eastman Kodak, Mattel, and Kraft Foods maintain large offices in what the locals
sometimes call "Vendorville." Walt Disney's large retail business has its headquarters not in Los
Angeles, but in nearby Rogers, Arkansas. These Wal-Mart suppliers are a who's who of
American and international business, staffed by ambitious young executives who have come to
see a posting to once-remote Bentonville as the crucial step that can make or break a corporate
If they can meet Wal-Mart's exacting price and performance standards, their products