Trouble In Wallyworld

A recent story on ABC news told about a possible nationwide strike of Wal-Mart employees on “Black Friday” if the company doesn’t change its policy about allowing unions. Wal-Mart has been adamant about not allowing unions on the grounds that they are not necessary since their workers are well paid and happy. In the case of the recent threat, for example, a spokesman for the giant retailer had the following comment:

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman . . .claim[ed] that most employees have “repeatedly rejected unionization.

“They seem to recognize that Walmart has some of the best jobs in the retail industry — good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement,” he said in a telephone interview with ABC News.

Apparently it’s not just politicians who lie with a straight face; corporate spokespeople can do so as well. We all know that things are not going well for the giant retailer. There are numerous strikes and walk-outs at Wal-Mart stores around the country where employees who make barely above subsistence wages demand what they regard as their rights. In Chicago recently, for example 17 peaceful protesters were arrested for supporting a strike that had been going on since September 15th. In addition there have been over 100 different types of lawsuits filed against Wal-Mart over the years, including one filed by female employees demanding equal pay and promotional opportunities which made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have blogged before about Wal-Mart which, as I have said, is a mixed bag. The company does many good things, including support of local charities and showing concern for the environment; they also employ 1.4 million people. But they refuse to allow unions, as noted, and their hourly wages are barely above poverty levels — $12.00 an hour on average which nets the worker $24,960.00 a year, barely $1900.00 above poverty levels for a family of four — guaranteeing that the employee’s spouse will almost certainly also have to work.

The employees are wrong to say that every other major company allows unions, of course, as the example of Whole Foods proves. But companies such as Whole Foods actually do put the employee’s needs first as they have better pay and even profit-sharing for their employees who do appear to like working for the company. So it’s not a question of unions, which are also a mixed bag, it’s about the giant company’s attitude toward its employees — all of them, and not only those at the managerial levels. Talk is cheap, especially when it is riddled with lies. It’s time for Wal-Mart to put its money where its mouth is and treat its employees ethically. The threat of a major strike on “Black Friday” may be the impetus the company needs to do the right thing.

The Rich Get Richer

As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as mentioned before the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what the hell is going on. I recently blogged that 26 U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they paid in taxes in the year 2011. The following chart tells the bigger story:

The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman at the top enough $$ they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.

The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffpost tells us:

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work  struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse.

Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person is a blog-buddy who made the following comment on a recent post I wrote about the “typical pauper.” He said: ”

The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).

Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat Visa bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there is always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those in the yellow box above. How do you cope?  Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!

My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity.