Etch A Sketch and the Wal-Mart phenomenon

Opinion

Perhaps the most successful, imaginative toy of all time has been Etch A Sketch. It thrilled our youngsters – and their parents and other adults – some 40 years ago and it still does today.

For years, it was an entirely U.S.A.-made, union-made product, done from start to finish at Ohio Art Company in Bryan, Ohio, a city of 8,000 located just off one of the first western exits of the Ohio Turnpike.

Etch A Sketch was the pride of the area, and likely Bryan’s best-known product. It employed between 100 and 200 production workers, often including three generations from the same family. When the workers went on strike during the 1980s, they exhibited great solidarity. The struggle became a typical one, pitting the wealthy owner of the plant – who lived in the proverbial town mansion – against a hardscrabble workforce. The town rallied behind the workers. Even the police department cooperated in assuring that the imported scabs (strikebreakers) followed strict guidelines as they attempted to drive through picket lines to enter the plant.

The scene still remains in my mind of some of the oldest women on the line walking slowly across the parking lot entrance, with a police officer patiently waiting, allowing one car at a time to enter, frustrating the scabs and the company. The scabs made little impact on the strike, which ended a few weeks later with the usual compromises on each side.

Today, those workers no longer have jobs at Ohio Art. The company now makes Etch A Sketch in Shenzhen, China, using a privately owned nonunion company that pays wages so low that it’s a bargain for Ohio Art.

The closing of Etch A Sketch production in Bryan is a story that has occurred thousands of times in the last 30 years in factory towns all across the U.S., particularly in the industrial Rust Belt, as factories after factories have closed down or reduced their workforce.

William Killgallon, the Ohio Art owner whose mansion strikers picketed 20 years ago, lamented the shutting down of production in his home town, saying he missed the friendships made over the years with the workers in the plant, but he had no other choice if he was to continue to compete and sell his goods. (Note: I spent enough time in Bryan, particularly during the strike, to know that Killgallon and his workers hardly ever frequented the same social establishments.)

This brings us to Wal-Mart. It is now the largest employer in the U.S., and has 20 percent of the retail business of the country’s 100 largest retailers.

Wal-Mart has fine-tuned efficiency to a fare-thee-well, using technologies that defy the imagination and personnel practices from the robber baron era. It has indeed become the store of choice for many low-income folks, and, it’s largely true, the prices are lower than most stores.

What’s wrong with that? Plenty. For instance, Wal-Mart can dictate to its suppliers just about anything it wants. Some suppliers devote 70 to 80 percent of their production to Wal-Mart, and are particularly vulnerable.

Thus, when Wal-Mart wants to bargain a lower wholesale price, the supplier is forced to accept it, or face the loss of most of its business and possible bankruptcy. That translates into suppliers being squeezed, forced to pay their workers less, cut benefits and, if there is a union involved, “get tough” at the bargaining table. Eventually, suppliers are forced to go to Mexico, China, or Sri Lanka if they wish to continue to produce the goods for Wal-Mart.

Such was the case of Ohio Art, which was urged by Wal-Mart to produce a product that could sell for under $10. When introduced in 1960, Etch A Sketch sold for $3.99, and with inflation would sell for $23.99 in today’s prices. So, to keep the business, Ohio Art moved production to Shenzhen. Meanwhile, Chinese unions, which are battling to organize workers at private and foreign-owned companies, say Wal-Mart and other U.S.-based corporations are fiercely opposing their efforts.

Wal-Mart’s practices, of course, are copied by its competitors, like Target, Kmart and Sears. And the low-wage practices snowball throughout the economy. More and more Americans are moving into lower incomes, after losing union jobs paying from $12 to $25 an hour to those in the $6 to $8 level.

Some economists (most with little connection to working people) say this is the cost of progress in a capitalistic system.

They say Wal-Mart is “good” since it forces U.S. industry to be more efficient and productive.

Neat argument. But the benefit from the improved efficiency and productivity is not to the workers in towns like Bryan, Ohio, but to Wal-Mart and other corporations.

Wal-Mart probably doesn’t want to remind folks about its marketing claim early in company history that it sold U.S.-made products. (Remember that campaign?) Now, try to find a U.S.-made product at Wal-Mart.

It’s easy to blame Wal-Mart for the ills facing working people. The blame is far broader: it’s in a system and government that permits businesses to continue such practices. There are antitrust laws that can be applied to Wal-Mart. There are collective bargaining laws that need reform to give workers a real opportunity to organize, there are wage and hour laws that need to be considered, and there are trade practices that need fixing.

Meanwhile, if we are inclined to shop at Wal-Mart, consider the former workers at places like Ohio Art and the price they have paid in the name of economic progress.



Kenneth Germanson is a retired labor union representative who currently works as an advocate for low-income families in Milwaukee. He can be reached at advoken@execpc.com.