UKRAINE’S POLL: ‘THE REAL STORY’

New York City

Re The Nation‘s coverage of the elections in Ukraine and Stephen F. Cohen’s “The Media’s New Cold War” [Jan. 31]: While I share Cohen’s concerns about the manipulation of the story by ideological pundits and their eagerness to turn the elections into a revival of cold war rivalry between Russia and America, I fear he has missed the real story–that of the self-assertion of a majority of the Ukrainian citizenry and their rejection of the corrupt, criminal state that has ruled them since independence. Especially important for progressives has been the role of Ukraine’s students and youth in preventing an electoral outcome that few doubted was illegitimate and fraudulent; the students, led by the remarkably disciplined organization Pora, risked their lives and health over several weeks in tent cities in Kiev and elsewhere–this after heavy-handed intimidation from educational and police authorities. The persistence and rapid spread of the protest belies nearly everything that native and foreign observers have asserted about a passive and cynical Ukrainian population. Eventually, the Ukrainian Supreme Court asserted its own independence, declaring the November 21 runoff election invalid and demanding a second runoff.

Certainly the role of outside money and organizations, including the Russian government (President Putin made two campaign trips to Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovich, while Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Russian parliamentarians visited eastern provinces of Ukraine to inflame regional, religious and ethnic divisions), has muddied the waters of Viktor Yushchenko’s victory over the government’s choice, Yanukovich, who symbolized the criminal aspects of the Ukrainian state. But whatever the level of outside support, in the end the Ukrainian voters were able to express their opinions in the December 26 election, when the national media were finally freed from the dictates of presidential instructions on what to cover and how, and the level of administrative pressures on key voter blocs was reduced or thwarted.

By keeping the focus on outside actors, The Nation‘s contributors are perpetuating a longstanding politics of depriving Ukrainians of a sovereign voice or any role save for being pawns of those outside forces. The protests and spread of opposition ought to embolden the forces of democracy around the world, as they have, for example, in the opposition movements in Russia (where liberals from Grigorii Yavlinsky to Irina Khakamada to the human rights organization Memorial and several Russian journalists have been joined in their criticism of Putin’s stance on Ukraine by foreign policy hawks like Sergei Karaganov), Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. Although we can’t predict what chance a Yushchenko government has to overcome the legacy of cynicism and distrust of state institutions it has inherited, the events of the last months bear comparing to the 1989 Polish roundtable and the suppressed student protest in Tiananmen Square.

MARK von HAGEN


COHEN REPLIES

New York City

My friend and colleague Mark von Hagen regrets that I “missed the real story” of Ukraine’s presidential election–“the self-assertion of a majority of the Ukrainian citizenry.”

I did not write about that story for two reasons. First, it was the subject of almost daily reports and editorials in the mainstream, mass-circulation American press for nearly two months. Other than to demonstrate piety, why should I, too, have written about an already well-known story?

Second, as the accomplished historian von Hagen certainly knows, there is rarely, if ever, only one “real story” in major events. I chose to write about one that had been ignored–the way the US press resorted to double-standard, cold war habits in commenting on Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis. Who can say for sure which will turn out in the long run to be the most “real” story?

STEPHEN F. COHEN


WAL-MART: WE EMPTY OUR TRASH

Bentonville, Ark.

Liza Featherstone’s January 3 cover story, “Down and Out in Discount America,” presents some theories about Wal-Mart and an odd conclusion that it’s a bad thing to help lower-income Americans. Featherstone asserts that Wal-Mart builds stores only in low-income areas (presumably to exploit the poor). This means she either didn’t know about our stores in areas like Palm Springs, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; Park City, Utah; and Plano, Texas; or chose not to discuss them. Wherever we locate, our mission is the same: to provide things that people need or want at prices that make life more affordable for them.

Most of our savings come not from the exploitation of employees but from things like large-volume buying, inventory management and distribution technology. Our CEO and other executives share hotel rooms on the road, fly coach and empty their own wastebaskets to save money for our customers.

Our full-time associates make almost twice the federal minimum wage on average (not $8, as Featherstone asserts), with health insurance, a profit-sharing 401(k) plan, bonuses, a new discounted mortgage program, tuition discounts, company contributions to a stock savings plan and discounts on merchandise.

Featherstone asserts that women are somehow ill served by Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart is a defendant in the “largest” gender discrimination suit in America (of course, any such case against Wal-Mart would be large, because Wal-Mart employs more people than just about anyone else). The facts are that the stories of the six plaintiffs in this case are not representative of the experience most women have here. Also, 60 percent of Wal-Mart associates are female, and currently just over 40 percent of our managers are women, including professionals like pharmacists. Women at Wal-Mart run $100 million stores and multibillion-dollar divisions–some larger than entire Fortune 500 companies. Many worked their way up to these jobs from hourly positions in our stores. As a matter of fact, two of our female officers, Linda Dillman and Claire Watts, were recently named to Fortune‘s “Most Powerful Women in Business” list.

We find it ironic that even as Featherstone makes a living criticizing Wal-Mart, at least one of her books can be found on our website at walmart.com (at a very reasonable price). Her conclusions about our company, however, continue to be off base.

SARAH CLARK
Director of corporate communications,
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.


Davis, Calif.

To clarify Liza Featherstone’s reporting on Wal-Mart and elaborate on the fight in California around healthcare: In 2003 the California legislature did pass a bill that required large employers to provide health coverage to their workers and their families or pay a fee into a statewide purchasing pool that would provide such coverage. It set a standard for on-the-job health benefits similar to the minimum wage for pay, and thus would have expanded coverage to more than 1 million working uninsured.

But in 2004 the fast-food and retail industries led a referendum (Prop 72) to repeal this major reform, with McDonald’s and Wal-Mart among the top five contributors to its defeat. The healthcare measure still got 49.2 percent of the vote, despite $18 million worth of scare tactics marshaled against it. Health advocates in California and in other states will use the closeness of this vote to show that health reform is winnable and to continue the fight for workers and their families to get the health coverage they deserve.

ANTHONY WRIGHT
Executive director, Health Access California


FEATHERSTONE REPLIES

New York City

It is possible to serve poor people and screw them at the same time: Wal-Mart lowers wages and living standards even as it brings convenience and bargains to a community. My emphasis on Wal-Mart’s appeal to the working poor was to point out the political complexities Wal-Mart’s critics face, the lack of market power held by the company’s consumers, and the need to take action beyond the cash register.

Sarah Clark refutes an assertion I never made–that Wal-Mart sets up stores “only” in low-income areas–leaving unchallenged my actual point, that the company operates “primarily” in poor areas. Her mention of four Wal-Marts in wealthy towns–out of its more than 3,000 US stores–hardly advances a conversation about the company’s general tendencies.

Wal-Mart has many money-saving strategies–another that Clark neglected to mention is forcing manufacturers to sell at such low prices that they have to move operations to Chinese sweatshops. But exploitation of its US workers is one of the ways prices are kept low, as Clark essentially admits by using the wiggle-word “most.” I wrote correctly that the average wage at Wal-Mart is just over $8 an hour; Clark’s figure includes only full-time workers, ignoring the company’s part-timers, who make up one-third of its workforce and are often kept deliberately underemployed to save Wal-Mart from paying for benefits. Wal-Mart’s wages are well below the average retail wage, which is $12.17.

Clark also deftly notes that Wal-Mart employees have “health insurance” without mentioning that employees pay more than 40 percent of the premium. (Anthony Wright’s letter more accurately illustrates Wal-Mart’s attitude toward healthcare for employees.)

Most employment class-action suits against large companies focus on a particular region, store or division, not the entire company. Wal-Mart is the defendant in the largest civil-rights class action in history not simply because it is a large company but because the retailer’s patterns of promotion have been consistently egregious throughout its operations nationwide. Dukes v. Wal-Mart is based on data showing that Wal-Mart lagged far behind its competitors in the promotion of women in nearly every state and paid women less than men in nearly every single position. In 1999 Wal-Mart had the same percentage of female managers that competing retailers had achieved in 1975.

It’s endearing that Wal-Mart boasts about its feminist achievements: namely, that some women have been able to advance into positions of power. I hope the company’s PR folks remembered to send Betty Dukes a Christmas card this year, with a note of thanks, because many of the cheering developments Clark mentions in her letter–increased numbers of women in management, the promotion of Linda Dillman and Claire Watts–occurred after Dukes’s lawsuit was filed, probably as a direct result.

Finally, I’m delighted that Wal-Mart sells my first book, Students Against Sweatshops, on its website. (Thanks, Wal-Mart!) But I’m amused that the company would brag about that, thus highlighting the mysterious absence from its inventory of my second book, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, which has in its first three months sold many times more copies than the first title and is far more likely to interest Wal-Mart customers.

LIZA FEATHERSTONE


Our assortment of letters castigating Robert Grossman for his January 24 “Babe Lincoln” cartoon and the editors for publishing it [“Letters,” Feb. 14] elicited a flurry of mail castigating those letter writers. Below are two.

–The Editors

‘THE BABE’ IS BACK

Fort Wayne, Ind.

I’m certainly not The Nation‘s biggest defender, but might I suggest that before we gay boys get our pearls in a knot over a transgressive portrayal of President Lincoln in drag, we check our transphobia at the door? Why is it so offensive for a gay man to be portrayed as a drag queen? Isn’t this a little akin to a straight person recoiling in horror when someone mistakes him (her) for a queer? I agree that we live in a time of increasingly brutal and repressive policies here and abroad. Doesn’t this suggest that we need more transgressive speech and writing, not less?

GREG SMITH


Ukiah, Calif.

I just wanted to add my two cents on the “Stereotype by Daguerreotype” brouhaha: What is up with progressives in this country? Where is the sense of humor? As a black, bi-sexual, wiccan, radical female feminist, I have every reason to be “sensitive” to the way humans are portrayed in print. However, I refuse to let go of my sense of humor. To my dismay, too many on “our side” want to go through life with the exact grim (and hateful?) mentality that many on “their side” do. Laughter is one of the things that make us sane in the midst of all this misery and horror. Shame on all those folks who took offense. Get a bloody sense of humor, people!

BONNIE HARRIS