Economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich gave a standing-room-only audience Monday in Santa Rosa a crash course in how the nation's economy went sour.
With the backdrop of a movement in Sonoma County to stop Wal-Mart from expanding its local presence, Reich used the nation's top employer as an example of how big companies have outsized power to set poor standards for wages and workplace conditions.
"This isn't about blaming Wal-Mart, it's about blaming the system," Reich told about 400 people at Santa Rosa's Glaser Center.
The global retailer is a "net job destroyer" when it arrives in communities, Reich said.
"One of the tactics of Wal-Mart is to suck jobs out of a community," the former Clinton administration official said. "For every job gained, 1.4 jobs are lost."
The Living Wage Coalition hosted the speech. It has staunchly opposed Wal-Mart's bid to expand in Sonoma County, including adding a grocery department to its Rohnert Park store.
Wal-Mart has said expanding the store would add about 85 jobs.
But that ultimately would mean the city would lose 119 jobs, according to Reich's assertion that the company drives out competitors.
"Wal-Mart is not a job creator, it is a job killer," said Martin Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition and an instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Reich outlined a journey of the typical American worker starting just after World War II when the disparity between the highest and lowest wage earners was significantly lower.
During the 1950s, when General Motors was the country's largest employer, the average worker made about $50 an hour including benefits, a figure Reich said was adjusted for inflation to reflect current dollars.
About 30 percent of workers belonged to a union.
Today, fewer than 6.3 percent of workers in the private sector are unionized.
And the typical worker at the nation's largest employer Wal-Mart makes $8.81 an hour, Reich said.