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.

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.