Wal-Mart not only exploits its 1,400,000 workers, its huge size and low prices force other companies – both its suppliers and its competitors to exploit their workers. In the process, Wal-Mart is one of the major forces pulling down wages in the United States.
The cost of Wal-Mart’s persistent anti-worker policies extends to every taxpayer. For example, half of Wal-Mart’s workers qualify for federal assistance through the food stamp program.
On Black Friday, I went to the Wal-Mart nearest to my home. Not to shop, but to demonstrate against Wal-Mart’s employee policies. The theme of the rally was Wal-Mart: Always Low Wages, Always. It felt good to do a small thing to protest against hard working people being squeezed by the largest employer in the country. It also felt good that many people in cars coming into the parking lot honked their horns in support of our protest. This makes sense – the people most likely to shop at Wal-Mart are the millions of minimum or near minimum wage workers who seek low prices in order to stretch their household budgets.
In recent posts, I have outlined how we are becoming a low-wage economy, with the real wages of average families falling by almost 10% since the recession of 2000 – 2001. Wal-Mart is the leader of the pack in holding wages down. The average hourly wage of a Wal-Mart sales associate is $8.81. That adds up to $1,527 per month or $18,325 per year if the person works full time – but, of course, no sales associate works full time. That is why a new report from the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that each Wal-Mart store costs taxpayers an estimate $1 million in public assistance for its employees.
Oh, and the company reported profits of $17 billion in 2012. If even half of those profits were distributed equally to its employees, each of them would make an extra $6,070 each year.
Unfortunately, Wal-Mart’s competitors are working just as hard to keep their wages down, too. The nine other companies that employ the most low-wage workers should be very familiar – McDonalds, Starbucks, TJX (Marshalls & TX Max), Macy’s, Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster), Sears, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC), Target, and Kroger (Kroger, City Market, Dillons). Together they have 3,021,000 employees and made $15.6 billion in profits last year.
Of course, these employees could unionize, but it is like rolling a boulder up hill. First, the workers are scattered around the country in hundreds of retail or restaurant outlets. Second, the turnover is tremendous because workers leave as soon as they can find anything even a little bit better in terms of hours and wages and benefits. Finally, these employers are nasty. According to the National Labor Relations Board, Wal-Mart has “unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees” in 13 states for protesting their work conditions or attempting to organize a union. In four states those charges also include “the surveillance, discipline, and or termination of employees in anticipation of” planned strikes.
That is why our citizen protest was important. There is a rising tide of discontent among Wal-Mart workers and other low-wage employees. Unions are trying to organize workers at many stores around the country. When Wal-Mart workers get together and actually try to negotiate with management, we can expect a hostile reaction and the new union will have to strike to get any concessions. That is when community support will be crucial and can tip the balance. I urge you to adopt a local Wal-Mart and help the community committee forming to help its workers – some day soon it will be a vital service.