Wal-Mart expanding in US, Russia. Is it the new GM?

Lisa Poole/AP/File
Shoppers leave a Wal-Mart store in Danvers, Mass. The world's largest retailer said Thursday it would hire more than 22,000 workers in the US this year.

In the same week that once-mighty General Motors collapsed into bankruptcy, Wal-Mart stepped into the void with a dramatic announcement Thursday. It will be hiring more than 22,000 American workers this year to staff new and expanding stores.

Later in the day, the Bentonville, Ark., company told reporters it was "confident and hopeful" that it would set up shop in Russia.

Hiring? Expanding? In this global recession?The über-retailer is on the march. Already he world's largest retailer, America's biggest private-sector employer, and its largest grocery chain, Wal-Mart looks set to expand the ranks of its 2.1 million people in 15 countries. Last month, it entered the Indian market.

Wal-Mart, in short, is quickly becoming the icon of American business might for the 21st century – just as GM was for much of the 20th.

Job disparity

Whoa! Is it fair to equate GM's well-paid union jobs with Wal-Mart's low-paid shelf stockers? Those union jobs pulled blue-collar workers into the middle class. Those employees made things. They didn't just sell them.

Yet, smart management of a retail system can generate just as much wealth as a well-run assembly line. And it's important to remember that General Motors gained its dominance more than a decade before it was unionized in 1937.

So who knows?

Wal-Mart may be forced one day – either through unionization or a perceived threat to its reputation – to boost those salaries and offer jobs that really do offer a pathway into the middle class.

Poking the competition

Its hiring announcement Thursday, incidentally, was extremely well timed. It came on the same day that competing US retailers announced dismal sales yet again – down a seasonally adjusted 4.4 percent from April to May, by one estimate.

And what state is slated to see one of the biggest jumps in Wal-Mart hiring, with 1,500 new jobs?

Michigan. 'Nuff said.

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