Working For The Man!

In many ways Wal-Mart is a mixed bag (no pun intended!). The company employs 1% of America’s workforce, 1.4 million people. That’s a good thing. They also support “Second Harvest” and contribute to local charities where their stores are located. And they have given the organic foods industry a huge shot in the arm. Those are all good things. But they refuse to allow their employees to unionize and they pay them an average of $12.00 an hour. That amounts to $24,960.00 a year at a time when the poverty levels for a family of four is $23,050.00. Those are not good things. As I say, it’s a mixed bag. And to make matters worse, the family of Sam Walton who founded the company is rolling in dough — among the wealthiest people in this country. One does wonder why they couldn’t put pressure on the company to shell out a bit more money to keep their employees higher above the level of abject poverty. But that’s just me.

Contrast this with Whole Foods which also prohibits unions among its employees, but pays them $15.00 an hour which raises their annual income to $31,200.00 — more than $6,000.00 above the levels of the Wal-Mart employees. They also have stock shares for many of their employees. These salaries will not put these employees in a class with Sam Walton’s offspring. But the fact that Whole Foods obviously cares about their employees and wants them to be loyal and happy workers is a breath of fresh air — and sets that company apart from Wal-Mart with its “profits-first” approach to retailing. And, as we know, Wal-Mart is famous (infamous?) for running Ma and Pa stores out of business. So it’s a good thing (note sarcasm here) they are able to hire back many of the people they put out of work! But, then, as supporters of “Second Harvest” they may also be feeding many of those people as well — not to mention their own employees.

It is embarrassing and not something we can be proud of when the largest retailer in this country (the world?) gains its reputation at the expense of the people that are forced to work for the very company that has shrunken the job pool and made the box stores one of the few places where people can earn enough to put food on the table. But of greater concern is the shrinking middle class which has historically kept the capitalist ship afloat. Paying the average worker starvation wages doesn’t do much to help shore-up the middle class and support a struggling economy. I dare say the CEO of Wal-Mart, who assuredly considers himself a loyal American, hasn’t thought about that.

More importantly, Marx talked a great deal about exploitation but he failed to account for the growing middle class, which lessened the likelihood that there would be a revolution as he predicted. But as the middle class shrinks America begins to look more and more like the capitalist model Marx targeted in the nineteenth century with the very rich exploiting the very poor. And the very poor increasing in numbers and growing impatient.

A Good Corporation?

I am the first to point out the shortcomings and travesties of large corporations that put profits above people. One of the major corporations that heads the list because of its treatment of its employees and its inclination to buy cheap goods from third world countries is Walmart. There is no end of the bad press this company has received over the years, and deservedly so. Among other things, during the latest violence in the stores on Black Friday, the name “Walmart” kept coming up and there is no question they took the lead in encroaching on Thanksgiving in order to get customers out early buying their product. And this is not the first year Walmart has been in the headlines on the day after Thanksgiving.

But, then, there is another side to the story and it is a relief to read that Walmart partners with “Second Harvest,” a Twin Cities food bank that feeds the hungry and does immense good each year. In fact, Walmart has helped provide 197 million meals of late in the form of meat, fresh produce, and other nutritious foods. In addition, they have pledged $2 billion in cash, equipment and food through 2015. As the director of Second Harvest says, “That’s just a mind-blowing investment.” It comes in the form not only of food but also refrigerated food trucks that play an essential part in food-rescue efforts.

Walmart has long been involved in charitable giving, including millions of dollars in scholarships. But these gifts often seemed like a publicity ploy designed to off-set the image the company was getting as an exploiter of its own employees and one of the most greedy of the profit-seekers. This latest step has been taken on the quiet and dwarfs previous efforts in the good it will do for people in a time of real hardship.

Cynics will say this is a huge write-off for the company, and this is true. But, again, it is also an act of generosity that will help feed hungry people in an economy when their numbers are growing. We need to see this as a good thing to balance out the picture we have of large corporations that can’t see beyond the bottom line. Those companies are still out there and they dominate the landscape. But it is nice to know that there is some good hiding amidst all the short-sightedness.