A couple entries ago, a few people voiced their amazement that I managed to live 22 years without ever going into a Wal-Mart. Part of the reason for that, it must be said, is geographic–Wal-Mart only recently made it up to Northern California, and is still far enough away from Berkeley (thanks in part to Contra Costa County, which voted to keep Wal-Mart out) that it’s never really been a viable shopping option (or “shoption”). And in Irvine my needs are pretty well served by a combination of Trader Joe’s and Target.
But I wouldn’t go to Wal-Mart even if I lived across the street from one. I want to try to convince you all (or those of you who haven’t already made this decision) not to go to Wal-Mart, not ever. I think that as responsible citizens, particularly as young men and women who have only recently entered (or will soon enter) the workforce, we have a duty to boycott Wal-Mart, and to fight its continued incursion into our communities. To ennumerate:
–First off, the workers are paid staggeringly low wages, starting at $7 an hour, without benefits. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickel and Dimed–in which she tried to support herself with low-income jobs, including at Wal-Mart, without success–met an employee who, after two years, had gotten a raise, and was now making $7.75 an hour. Now, $7 is fine for a summer job while you’re in high school. But Wal-Mart is not staffed by high-schoolers; it’s staffed by adults, for whom Wal-Mart is the only source of income.
Actually, that’s not quite true; a great many Wal-Mart employees, unable to support themselves on their salary, are forced to turn to public services and welfare. During the California Recall debates, Cruz Bustamonte noted that Wal-Mart is known to give Food Stamp application forms to its employees, since their salary does not permit for luxuries like food. That the nation’s largest employer is not paying its employees a living wage is outrageous. To make matters worse, the company is notorious for exploiting its workers further; in four states, Wal-Mart was sued for unpaid overtime. Workers who refused to work overtime without pay were threatened with write-ups, or even with docked pay.
–In order to maintain the low salaries, Wal-Mart is one of the worst union-busting companies in the country (an elite group, to be sure). When Ehrenreich went to work for Wal-Mart, she and her fellow new hires were shown a video that explained why the employees don’t need, and in fact should fear, unionization. It described unions as obsolete and claimed that union bargaining could actually lead to lower salaries.
The hole in the logic is pretty gaping: if that were true, Wal-Mart wouldn’t be fighting so heavily against unions. Employees who make noise about unions are threatened with termination, and in fact are often fired, often for minor offenses like using profanity in the store. Wal-Mart has gone so far as to threaten to close a store altogether should its workers unionize. (Source: Naomi Klein, No Logo) This is why prices are lower at Wal-Mart than at KMart and Target: the latter companies, while hardly shining examples of capitalism, are unionized.
–Wal-Mart exploits underprivileged groups as a matter of policy. It is currently the target of the largest gender discrimination suit in history, which alleges that female Wal-Mart employees are systematically shunted into the lowest-paying positions and are kept out of management positions–despite making up more than two-thirds of Wal-Mart’s employees, women occupy only a third of management positions. (Source: United Food and Commercial Workers ) And just two months ago, federal agents raided sixty Wal-Marts across the country and arrested more than 250 illegal immigrants whom the company had knowingly hired for janitorial positions. (Source: New York Times) The arrested employees sued Wal-Mart for racketeering shortly afterwards, alleging that they were deprived of civil rights and labor law protections. (Source: Associated Press)
–On a more aesthetic level: being the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart has an incredible amount of power over the content of the products it sells. In order to maintain its reputation of being family-friendly, Wal-Mart insists that magazines, CDs, and so forth have inoffensive art and text on their covers; if they don’t, Wal-Mart simply refuses to sell them. The purchasing power Wal-Mart (and other large chains, such as KMart) represents is such that the entertainment industry censors itself, such as when a version of Nirvana’s “In Utero” was released with less objectionable cover art, and with the song “Rape Me” now called “Waif Me.” (Source: Klein) Of course, the purchasing power comes from the customers, so to boycott is to refuse Wal-Mart your portion of that power.
–And, of course, Wal-Mart’s business strategy relies on bankrupting independent businesses, who can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices–some businesses say they pay more for their goods wholesale than Wal-Mart charges retail. (Source: Klein) Wal-Mart, of course, can absorb their losses at a particular store long enough to drive all surrounding companies out of business. This leads to blighted, abandoned downtown areas and malls. And this isn’t just about having nice independent businesses to go to (though I think that is a factor), it’s about choice, as consumers and as employees. When you say that Wal-Mart employees are paid too little, people will tell you, “Well, they should get another job.” But if only the big-box retailers survive in a given area, what choices do the unemployed have?
I hope all of the above is reason enough to avoid Wal-Mart. Go out of your way not to give money to this negative force in American society. Drive a little farther, pay a little more, knowing that you’re not supporting anti-labor forces. Ehrenreich puts it better than I could, talking not just about Wal-Mart but about the working poor as a whole: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on–when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently–then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.” Don’t accept that sacrifice.