Sep 11, 2009

WalMart: Still Setting Too-Low Standards for the Retail Industry

Over the Labor Day weekend, launched a new campaign to change WalMart and encourage the company to be more responsible when it comes to labor practices. The campaign stresses that improving labor standards improves communities, and that when WalMart lowers standards in an area, it hurts those same communities and the working families that live there. Author and UC-Berklely Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, along with other luminaries, spoke at the press conference to launch the new compaign.

So Harold Meyerson's review today of Lichtenstein's new book, "The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Remade American Business, Transformed Global Trade, and Put Politics in Every Store," has major import for UFCW members working in retail stores nationwide. Meyerson looks at how, much in the same way unionized auto companies helped shape the industrial labor force, WalMart has done the same with the retail industry. With a difference. Where unionized auto companies helped raise standards for American workers, strongly anti-union WalMart has helped to lower them.

Meyerson recounts this story from Lichtenstein's book:

Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million -- a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000.

Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton's response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn't exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.

Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check," he told them.

This is the company that has helped to shape our current working environment. A company that tried to break the law to deny its workers the minimum wage.

And though WalMart has made some slight improvements in regards to health care and environmental practices (improvements no doubt in part made because of ongoing efforts of WakeupWalMart and similar groups, as well as overwhelming consumer pressure), WalMart's identity, says Meyerson, "came from fusing its brilliant use of new technology with its rigorous adherence to the old exploitative Southern labor practices." And because of that, WalMart is thus far unwilling to change too much, particularly in its attitude about unions. As Meyerson says:

With its stock price stagnant for nearly a decade due in part to its failure to expand to blue-state America, and with Democrats now in control in Washington, Wal-Mart is currently undergoing a great cosmetic makeover. It has announced it will develop a green profile for all the products it sells and has even proclaimed its support for an employer mandate in any emerging health-reform package. What it is not willing to relinquish is its die-hard opposition to unions and labor-law reform, its existential commitment to the Southern model of labor relations.

But this is precisely what WalMart must be prepared to relinquish; it must give up that model and embrace a new, consumer, worker, and community-friendly model that will help working families thrive and our communities prosper. Because Walmart is a presence in so many of our communities, because it employs so many, because it affects the lives of working families across the country and around the world, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful force for change. WalMart can and should join with communities and workers to help create the vibrant workplace, the healthy planet and the thriving community that we all want and are willing and ready to work for.

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