Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Stop Wal-Mart - Now!
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Watch out, Californians. You could be the next victims of Wal-Martization - and, as California goes, so will the nation, given California's huge size and influence.

It won't be pretty, what could happen if action is not taken - and quickly - against the plans of giant retailer Wal-Mart to build supercenters throughout California, as it has in too many other places around the country.

Los Angeles and other areas where Wal-Mart is trying to set up shop would be very wise to ban the behemoth stores, as have some 400 communities around the country. It would be hard to overstate the disastrous effects of the centers, which sell - under one huge roof - groceries, clothes, and just about everything else you could find in an entire shopping mall.

Because of its position as by far the country's largest private employer, alone accounting for 60 percent of all retail sales, Wal-Mart is able to keep its prices lower - often much lower - than its competitors.

Those who provide Wal-Mart the goods it sells in the United States and nine other countries must also keep their prices low, or Wal-Mart won't buy from them. In order to keep their prices at the level demanded by Wal-Mart, many of the stores' 21,000 suppliers move their operations to low-wage countries, where child labor, prison labor and other exploitation is common, and lay off their domestic workforce.

Ironically, federal agents who raided Wal-Mart stores in 21 states last fall discovered 200 undocumented immigrants from such countries who had been hired by a subcontractor for the stores' cleanup crews.

Wal-Mart's costs - and prices - are held down, too, by a policy of anti-unionism that keeps its employees' pay and benefits at or very close to the poverty level, even as Wal-Mart's revenue continues to soar to more than $258 billion a year. That's greater then the economies of all but 30 of the world's nations.

Its profits have reached an estimated $7 billion a year, and the net worth of the four descendants of founder Sam Walton who own 38 percent of Wal-Mart's stock have a combined net worth reckoned at $66 billion.

But don't those lower prices benefit shoppers and their communities?

Sure, many goods are indeed cheaper at Wal-Mart, but is it really worth the cost involved in keeping prices lower?

It certainly is not worth it to the smaller retailers, including some supermarket chain stores, that can't possibly lower their prices to Wal-Mart's level and so go under because shoppers shun them in favor of the big box supercenters.

Nor should the cost be worth it to local governments. For the less workers are paid, the less they can contribute to the local economy and to the financing of the public services provided them and others.

There's this, too. Other employers, seeking to cut their costs to compete with Wal-Mart, lower or at least try to lower pay and benefits to Wal-Mart's rock-bottom level. That was evident in the recently concluded supermarket strike and lockout in Southern California.

Strikers, in desperate financial straits after 4 1/2 months on the picket lines, their union near bankruptcy, had little choice but to agree to a contract that went a long way toward allowing their employers to exploit them in the same way as Wal-Mart exploits its employees.

The three-year contract provided no wage increases, requires employees to eventually pay part of their health insurance premiums and cuts their pension benefits. Worst of all, it creates a two-tier system under which newly hired workers will get substantially less in pay and benefits than current employees. Because of the heavy turnover among supermarket employees and the incentive the system gives the markets to replace senior workers, they are certain to end up with a significant number of marginally compensated employees.

Supermarkets also are likely to end up dealing with a much weaker union. The two-tier system strikes at the basic union principles of solidarity and equal pay for equal work by dividing workers into two groups, those in one group paid less than the others, although they do the same work.

The supermarkets and other employers who follow Wal-Mart are being led to the bottom. Wal-Mart pays the 1.1 million employees at its 3,500 U.S. stores - "sales associates," as they are called - less than $9 an hour for their average work weeks of 32 hours - less than $15,000 a year - and does not even offer retirement benefits.

Wal-Mart does offer health insurance, but to get it employees must pay nearly half the cost. Only about 40 percent can afford to do so and instead must rely on public health services, as do many Wal-Mart retirees. A like number of employees qualify for government food stamp programs, free school lunches for their children, housing subsidies and other public assistance that Wal-Mart actually helps them apply for.

Which means taxpayers are subsidizing Wal-Mart's ever-increasing profits by providing aid that wouldn't be needed if the corporation provided decent compensation at least close to that of other retail workers, who are paid an average of one-third more than Wal-Mart's non-union workers and have affordable health care coverage as well as retirement benefits.

"In a world of Wal-Marts," notes AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "the American middle class would disappear."

So would unions. Wal-Mart's company manuals instruct store managers to be "constantly alert to any signs your associates are interested in a union ... for efforts by a union to organize your associates ... Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization. You, as a manager, are expected to support the company's position."

Government investigators, union organizers and many current and former employees say that has led to firings, demotions, reductions in pay and working hours and other illegal disciplinary action against union supporters that have resulted in more than 40 formal complaints by the National Labor Relations Board.

Organizers have been spied on, denied access to workers and had their literature confiscated. Managers have warned that their stores would close if workers unionized, required workers to attend meetings at which managers show anti-labor videos and speak out against unions. Some managers have called in specialists to help identify their store's strongest union supporters and plan actions against them.

It's not just that "sales associates" are paid substantially less than their unionized counterparts at other retail outlets. The lack of union protections has led managers to force employees to work unpaid hours at the end of their shifts and during meal breaks, among them 400 workers who were awarded several thousand dollars each in overtime pay by a federal court in Oregon last month, and 69,000 others who shared in a $50 million settlement agreed to by the corporation in response to a suit filed in Colorado.

Sex discrimination suits have been filed in behalf of some of the women who make up 72 percent of Wal-Mart's sales force. They charge that women hold only one-third of the stores' management jobs, that only 10 percent of the stores' principal managers are women, that there's only one woman among Wal-Mart's 20 top officers, and that at all levels women are paid less than men.

Discriminating against women.... union-busting.... driving competitors out of business.... forcing suppliers to shift work overseas....requiring communities to spend tax money needed for other purposes to aid woefully underpaid workers....leading other employers along the same path....

It's way past time to try stop Wal-Mart, an arrogant, virtually unchecked bully that's riding roughshod over us. Banning construction of the 40 supercenters it wants to build in California over the next five years is the least that must be done. It won't be easy; Wal-Mart has fought very hard against every such attempt, but it must be done.

It's critical, too, that the entire labor movement mount a major organizing drive among Wal-Mart employees. That could lead, not only to a vast improvement in the working lives of the employees, but also to a desperately needed resurgence of union organizing nationwide.

It's urgent that labor, local government, all of us act swiftly and forcefully.

Copyright Dick Meister