Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Wal-Martian Chronicles

The combination of the grocery strikes in California and other states, along with the arrest of hundreds of illegal immigrants at Wal-Mart stores last week has inspired a number of good articles about Wal-Mart, how it's abusing its workers, what it's dong to the economy and how it's forcing American citizens to subsidize its profit margin.

The holidays are approaching and lots of us will be heading back to the homestead where the friends and family will be jumping in the SUV to shop at Wal-Mart. Before they jump in the car, ask them if they knew that:
  • "Wal-Mart pays its in-house workers only $7 to $8 an hour. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $8.70 an hour. Wal-Mart's health insurance is so costly that fewer than half its workers can afford it. Many aren't even eligible." (1)

  • "Lawsuits pending against the company in 30 states charge that Wal-Mart routinely forces workers to work off the clock without pay, locking them in stores until they finish cleaning up." (1)

    But isn't the point to keep prices low for consumers?

  • That's irrelevant. "A recent calculation based on payroll data showed if Wal-Mart gave all of its workers a $1-an-hour raise, the impact on prices would be one half of one cent." (1)

  • "Last year, Wal-Mart had profits of $8 billion. The CEO received $18 million in total compensation." (1)

  • Nearly 50 complaints have been issued against Wal-Mart by the National Labor Relations Board, "showing that Wal-Mart has prevented its employees from distributing union materials, interrogated and threatened employees who are trying to organize, taken unlawful disciplinary action and fired union supporters, and even gone to the extreme of closing entire departments in a community like Jacksonville, Texas, when Wal-Mart meat workers voted for a union." (1)

  • "With no health insurance, low wage workers are forced to go to emergency rooms for routine care. To make ends meet, they must apply for food stamps and rental assistance, use subsidized child care vouchers and draw on other government services. This means we the taxpayers are involuntarily subsidizing low-wage employers." (1)

  • "Wal-Mart's relentless drive to deliver low prices now directly saves American consumers $20 billion a year by one estimate -- and probably several times that sum once the indirect effect on competitors is factored in." (2)

  • But, "to win Wal-Mart's business, suppliers have been forced to close U.S. factories and source overseas, with millions of American jobs lost in the process." (2)

  • "Wal-Mart alone accounts for 10 percent of all imports from China, and its shelves bear little trace of the "Buy America" philosophy of its founder." (2)

  • Wal-Mart "now accounts for 35 percent of food sales, 30 percent of consumer staples, 25 percent of drug store products and 15 percent of magazines, books and apparel. Entire chambers of commerce have been wiped out with the arrival of a new "superstore," while "greeting customers at Wal-Mart" has replaced "hamburger flipping" in the national debate over wages and trade. " (2)
Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post attempts to answer the question how "a wealthy society to assure all workers a minimal standard of living."
I'm talking about a minimum wage that would put a family with two full-time workers above the poverty line in high-cost metropolitan areas -- and no doubt put upward pressure on wages at places like Wal-Mart.

Or how about requiring employers like Wal-Mart to provide all workers with affordable health insurance, including part-timers and recent hires.

And what about labor laws effective enough to prevent companies such as Wal-Mart that instruct managers never to hire anyone who once belonged to a union, that routinely fire any employee seen talking to a union organizer and that fly in special teams whenever a store's employees score too high on a "union probability index."

Yes, such measures would likely force Wal-Mart to raise the price of jeans and chicken wings by a nickel or two, slow its growth, and maybe even shave a fraction of a point off real GDP.

But that's not the issue. The issue we ought to be debating is what is an acceptable price to pay to restore a measure of fairness, equality and economic security to Wal-Mart nation. That is fundamentally a political issue, not an economic one.
My feeling is, if you can't beat 'em, organize 'em.

For more information about Wal-Mart and the grocery strikes, check out You Are Worth More.