December 24, 2003

Our people make the difference

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 11:02 am

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.



  1. Also consider that Wal Mart is shooting itself in the foot by driving other businesses out of town. If Wal Mart with its low wages is the only place of employment in town, chances are less money will be put back into wal mart by local consumers, since they will not have the capital to spend. See how that works?

    Also, some Wal Marts having driven competing businesses out of town will raise prices.

    You also forgot to mention the overall aesthic unpleasentness of Wal Mart merchandise (which matters to consumers of apparell and homewares.) Not relevant to the overall argument, I know, but most definatly another reason not to shop at Wal Mart. Call it the “They don’t have anything I like,” argument.

    Comment by AM — December 24, 2003 @ 12:13 pm

  2. Or how about, “Our Rich People Make the Difference?”

    Wal Mart is not the only company that pays a “paltry” $7 an hour. In fact, based on many places I’ve worked, that sounds downright high. I’m not saying WalMart is doing a great thing here – you still can’t survive on $7 an hour, even if it is better than $5.50 or $6 – but let’s think realistically about the people that shop at WalMart.

    I don’t shop at WalMart. I don’t need to. I have the luxury of boycotting that store, because I can afford to go to trendier places and spend more money on my double ply toilet paper and nice clothes that suit me better. But there are a hell of a lot of people in this country that -don’t- have that choice. Should they? Yes. Do they? No.

    Driving Wal Mart out of business (or McDonald’s, or the big three meat packers, or …) doesn’t solve the real problem here – people don’t shop at WalMart because they like to save a buck. Most people shop at Wal Mart because they simply must. They can’t afford not to. The real issue is labor and wages the country over.

    Comment by locks — December 29, 2003 @ 7:22 am

  3. I’ve heard this argument before, and perhaps predictably I don’t agree with it. I’ll begin with a little realism: Wal-Mart isn’t going out of business. Despite constant and passionate opposition for the last decade, it’s the largest retailer in the world–the largest and richest company in the world, in fact. I boycott Wal-Mart because I think it’s a moral issue, and also because opposition has at least checked Wal-Mart’s growth. But Wal-Mart is in no financial danger from a boycott.

    But I don’t accept the basic premise of the argument: that Wal-Mart shoppers are primarily, or even to a great degree, unable to afford other stores. Wal-Mart doesn’t just sell food and clothes. It sells expensive hardware, it sells CDs, books, and magazines, it sells the hottest new toys and video games. I don’t have the figures, and I don’t know where I’d find them, but I’d be willing to wager that the great majority of Wal-Mart’s clientele is comfortably middle-class.

    I’m sure that there are a number of people who cannot afford to shop anywhere other than Wal-Mart. There are also those who can’t afford to shop even at Wal-Mart–such as those working there. In “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich talks about a fellow employee who has her eye on a certain shirt on sale for $7; even with her employee discount, even though the shirt is clearanced and has a stain on it, that’s still more than she can afford. Wal-Mart doesn’t serve the poor; Wal-Mart creates the poor. It could afford to pay its workers more, keep prices the same, and still be a massively successful company. And you’re right, it is a nationwide issue–if salaries rose not only at Wal-Mart, but at other jobs as well (and yes, there are worse jobs; that doesn’t change the fact that Wal-Mart employees live below the poverty line), everyone would be able to choose whether to shop at Wal-Mart, or elsewhere.

    A Wal-Mart boycott does not threaten the people who need to buy goods at low prices, or the people who work at Wal-Mart. One of the things it does, in fact, is to demand that all Americans have the privilege that you and I have, that great advantage of free market capitalism: consumer choice.

    Comment by Tom — December 29, 2003 @ 9:48 am

  4. But if we boycott Walmart, where will the employees go?

    Comment by Bret — December 29, 2003 @ 3:59 pm

  5. I can personally attest to the anti-union video. We didn’t need to join a union, see, because we had “an open-door policy that let us take any grievances straight to management”. Whee. You should have seen the actor playing the organizer- fat, greasey, bad combover, big unlit cigar. I probably would have tried to start a union if i’d worked there for more than two months.


    Comment by Brian — January 1, 2004 @ 1:03 pm

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