Andrew Young, In Defense of Wal-Mart

Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, Ga., and United Nations ambassador takes up a new diplomatic post: defending Wal-Mart from a recent wave of negative publicity. Young talks about his new role with the world's largest retailer.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Civil Rights pioneer and former United Nations Ambassador Young will again put his diplomatic skills to the test. This time he'll champion Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. Young has been named chairman of the National Steering Committee, Working Families for Wal-Mart. While the group is technically independent of the retailer, it receives the majority of its funding from the company.

Young joins at a tough time for America's largest private employer. Recent attempts to expand into urban markets have been slowed by fears that the store depresses wages and drives out local shops. In his new job, Young hope to portray Wal-Mart as an advocate, not an adversary of the working poor.

One note before we get started, Wal-Mart is an underwriter of NPR programming.

Now, Young credits Wal-Mart with single-handedly revitalizing the South's economy.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Chairman of Steering Committee, Working Families for Wal-Mart): They brought in new wealth. They generated new job opportunities. They created opportunities for new suppliers. They made a lot of money. Poverty is good business. The way to deal with the problems of the poor is through private investment, through small business, through big business. The black community was almost a trillion dollar economy. If you add to that the poor white economy in the small towns and rural areas, you probably have another trillion dollar economy that's underserved.

And yet businesses are growing all over the world. They're neglecting the black community, and they're neglecting the rural South.

GORDON: Andy, before taking the post though, you certainly knew the controversy that came with dealing with Wal-Mart on the other side of the coin, the concern...

Mr. YOUNG: I did. I was there last year trying to bring Wal-Mart into Nigeria. They asked me if I would consider doing this and I just said, sure. And one of the reasons is that I did a similar job for Nike. You remember all of the talk about child labor and sweatshops. I actually went to China. I went to Vietnam. I went to Indonesia, and I studied the situation for myself. I wrote a lot of recommendations for Nike, all of which they adhered to. And I went back six months later and checked it out to see if they had done some of the things that I suggested.

But $18 out of $100 pair of shoes stayed in Asia; $25 went to Portland for the ideas, the design, the management and marketing; but the majority of the dollars in a $100 pair of shoes went to places like Shoe Town, Sports Authority and created an industry that served our communities. I think Wal-Mart is the same way. There are problems when you have anybody that employees more than a million people. But the problems in Wal-Mart are nothing compared to the problems that these people had before Wal-Mart got there.

GORDON: Well, Andy, let me stop you there and ask you in terms of just reconciling. Let's take Nike and Wal-Mart as a for instance. You talked about all of the monies that stay in the community through Nike, yet there were those who were concerned about the literal death of young people because of those $100 shoes, the pressure it put on poor parents to buy them. In Wal-Mart's case, it's the question of anti-labor practices, big stick mentality pushing small business out of regions that they go to.

How did you resign those things and deal with this?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, first of all, I look at them to see whether they're true or not. Let's say taking small business. The small business that everybody wants to protect are the same small business that have been overcharging black people and poor people all over the country. Who is saying let's protect these small shop owners in our communities. They're not black people that run these shops.

The other thing is I started out in my neighborhood, Thomasville, Georgia, in the '50s. When the Campbell's Soup factory came south, they were paying $.75 an hour. Well, all my northern friends said those are slave wages. But in my church members, they were getting $3.00 a day for chopping cotton. So $.75 an hour was like heaven on earth. We have seen those factories move in the south, they've moved on somewhere else.

But now, in the same areas, we have all kinds of small factories; all kinds of electronics; all kinds of automobile factories. And the entry level jobs are always for me the most important. And Wal-Mart provides entry level jobs where there are no jobs. So I think Wal-Mart is ultimately a wealth generator.

Whereas, organized labor essentially has directed its tactics toward wealth redistribution. Now, that was fine in the '50s in the '60s. But the truth of it is in a declining economy, I'm not saying that labor is responsible, but certainly they have contributed to the demise of the airline industry. They've contributed to difficulties in the automobile industry, because short term decisions impact long term contracts and values. I just think we've got to rethink what we think of as the right thing to do.

GORDON: Andy, will this allow you to be to some degree, a watchdog of Wal-Mart? As you know, they've been hit with in recent years huge sex discrimination class action lawsuits, as well as some racial discrimination lawsuits, and, as you said, anything this big needs some oversight. Will you be able, from this position, to do that?

Mr. YOUNG: No. I really won't. That's the job of management. However, if there are complaints in the community, I will be glad to take them to management. This is a citizen organization. Thought it's funded in part by Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart suppliers, it's simply trying to tell the other side of the story.

GORDON: What of those who were going to say you're simply now a hired hand?

Mr. YOUNG: Fine. I mean, you are too. And anybody in their right mind gets paid for their services. Now, I've never done anything for money, and the money I get I give away. I gave up big salaries to be Mayor of Atlanta. The Mayor of Atlanta made $50,000 a year for eight years. So I don't think anybody can say that I've done something for the money. My price is to get Wal-Mart into Africa.

GORDON: And Andy, what of the critics who say that that's simply Westernizing Africa too much?

Mr. YOUNG: Tell them to go there and try to live there themselves. I mean, you know, we live in our bourgeoisie homes, drive our fancy cars, and really just take for granted such a high quality of life. And then we're going to get righteous when other people want to live that way? Africa does not mind food. I mean, people are dying of AIDS, yes, but more people are dying of hunger, and even the AIDS deaths come about--the AIDS and malaria deaths come around because you don't have enough in your diet to build up your immune system.

People use to live with these kinds of diseases. I'm very sensitive about what we change in Africa, but making food and clean water available, making clothing available, making books and refrigerators available, I don't have any problem with that.

GORDON: Andy, before we let you go, I'd be remiss in not asking you about a couple of regions around the world, seeing that you were the former Ambassador to the United Nations for the United States.

I want to ask you specifically about Sudan. Every time you take a step forward, it seems we take two steps backwards in that region, and it now looks that some of the fighting is moving from there and into Chad. Talk to us about again, trying to stabilize a region in an area that for years now has remained tenuous at best?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, Sudan is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. If you went from Michigan and Ohio all the way back to New York and from Maine all the way down to Florida, that's about the size of the Sudan, and the problem is that there are no roads.

The government, which would be located in the north, say right around where Washington is, doesn't have a lot of control and these regional warlords really just exploit the situation. Ironically, no one seems to know what Darfur is all about, but we don't see the connections.

Sudan also has oil, along with Nigeria. In fact, we're getting more of our oil from Africa now then we are from the Middle East, but the oil that we're getting from Africa, we put no investment out for the country. We contribute little or nothing to the security of any of these regions, and I think it's going to come back to haunt us.

GORDON: We have heard, particularly over the last 12 months or so, questions about whether or not the United Nations as we know it today is obsolete, whether or not it is a working unit, a viable entity. You sit in a unique position, based on your relationship with the United Nations over the years. What do you think of that?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, the United Nations is nothing more than the sum of its parts. When we were there and the Carter Administration had good ideas and was working with the rest of the world, and we never had to send in any troops. We never got anybody killed. I mean, I had to go to Africa by myself, without even a company of police, but my mandate was the talk with Nigeria, talk with Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, talk with South Africa and to see what we could do to bring people together. But it worked largely because there was a spirit, a style and a willingness as the United States as a leader to use the U.N. for the better for the rest of the world.

The guy at the U.N. doesn't seem to understand what the U.N.--that he is the U.N., and nobody wants to put enough resources in trust so that the United Nations could really do something in Darfur.

GORDON: Andy Young, it's always a pleasure to talk to you, and we appreciate your insight on all of what we talked about today. Thanks, Andy.

Mr. YOUNG: Okay, bye bye.

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