BOB QUELLOS provides the facts about Corporate America’s biggest
WAL-MART is the largest private employer in the United States, with
1.3 million employees.
For most of the last decade, it was the world’s largest corporation,
with annual profits topping $9 billion. In just 2004, it grew by the equivalent
of one Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, Microsoft or Lockheed Martin.
But even more striking testimony to its economic power can be found in the
number of major American corporations that rely on Wal-Mart as their largest
consumer--including Walt Disney, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Revlon, Gillette,
Campbell Soup and RJ Reynolds.
Wal-Mart is also the largest film developer and optician in the country, it
owns the largest private truck fleet, and it is the largest single revenue generator
for Hollywood in the world.
Wal-Mart’s signature slogan is “Everyday Low Prices.” To follow
through on this promise, Wal-Mart provides minimal wages and benefits to its employees.
Forbes magazine estimates that the average Wal-Mart employee earns an average
of $7.50 an hour--or about $15,000 a year, well shy of the federal poverty line
for a family of three.
Paid overtime is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean Wal-Mart
employees don’t work for free off the clock. By one estimate from 2002,
Wal-Mart shortchanged its Texas workers $150 million over four years by regularly
not paying them for working through their 15-minute breaks.
While Wal-Mart employees struggle to survive, the company’s CEO Lee Scott
made more than $17 million in total compensation in 2004--twice the national
average for a CEO and 871 times higher than a U.S. Wal-Mart worker.
Wal-Mart is also leading the attack on employee health care benefits. The company
health plan refuses to pay for child vaccinations and many routine procedures,
and any type of contraception.
That’s for the workers who are covered. The New York Times reported that
fewer than 45 percent of Wal-Mart’s workers receive the company’s
health insurance, and that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart workers are
either uninsured, or covered by Medicaid. In Alabama, almost 4,000 children
of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, at an estimated yearly cost of somewhere
between $1.7 million and $2.4 million to that state alone.
Wal-Mart has been helped by its political connections, and not only to the
favored party of big business, the Republicans. Throughout the 1990s, as the
company prospered as never before, the Walton family cultivated close relations
with another famous Arkansas couple. Hillary Clinton’s law firm represented
the company for years, and Hillary herself served on its board of directors.
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FOR CONDITIONS to change at Wal-Mart, the labor movement must be willing
to fight a battle that isn’t limited to Wal-Mart and its suppliers.
Target, another non-union retail chain, pays it employees only $7.25 an hour
to start off. A United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) survey found that
starting wages were similar in Target and Wal-Mart--and Wal-Mart’s benefits
package was actually easier to qualify for than Target’s.
The UFCW has had an operating campaign to organize Wal-Mart, but, as Anthony
Bianco, author of The Bully of Bentonville, an exposé of Wal-Mart, states,
“Throughout the 1990s, the UFCW essentially fought a publicity war against
the company instead.”
After the UFCW’s defeat in the 2003 California grocery strike, the union
called off its Wal-Mart campaign. It has continued a publicity campaign against
Wal-Mart, mainly through the Web site Wake Up Wal-Mart.
Additionally, another umbrella group called Wal-Mart Watch, formed with $1
million in seed money from the Service Employees International Union, is pushing
the same type of publicity campaign.
Both campaigns say their long-term goals are to raise awareness. But as a recent
Zogby International survey attests, 4 in 10 people already have a negative view
of the company.
Because of competition from other retailers, Wal-Mart can’t raise prices
to beef up profit margins. Its main options for increased earnings are continued
pressure on workers’ wages and benefits, and expanding into new markets.
Wal-Mart plans on increasing its retail space by 8.4 percent this year alone.
While shutting down stores was once an option for defeating union organizing
drives, Wal-Mart’s business model anticipates expanding into urban areas
the company earlier tried to avoid. This will create further openings for workers
to fight the retail giant.
In the belly of the beast of Bentonville
JOSH GRYNIEWICZ tells what it’s like to work for Wal-Mart--and how workers
pay for its “everyday low prices.”
I WORKED for Wal-Mart just under a year. I was fired two days before Christmas,
which in retrospect was probably the best holiday bonus I could have received.
When I started, I knew very little about unions, even less about workers’
power and nothing about working-class history. I’d like to credit Sam
Walton with radicalizing me, but mostly, that’s because I know he would
be rolling in his grave at the thought.
As a member of the 4-to-1 crew (4 p.m. to 1 a.m.), my responsibilities were
to unload up to three trucks a night, with freight ranging from 1,000 pieces
to 2,300 and up; stack the freight according to department; and pull it to the
floor for overnights to restock the shelves.
According to the program description, this job required 14 unloaders, but we
rarely had more than eight.
“We were intentionally understaffed,” John Murphy, a former support
manager with seven years on the job (during one of which, he was my direct supervisor),
told me in an interview for this article.
“A truck has six-and-a-half panels; managers are told that each panel
should take no more than 10 minutes to unload, regardless of size and amount
of freight,” Murphy said. “A truck should be unloaded and ready
to be pulled to the floor in an hour and ten minutes. Realistically, a smaller
truck should take 45 minutes to an hour-fifteen; larger-scale trucks up to about
an hour-forty-five.” And that’s without considering that we consistently
operated with half a crew.
To make matters worse, our equipment was archaic. The line that we used to
move freight through the dock along rollers was falling apart--we actually had
to use paint buckets to prop it up.
None of this kept management from hopping into the trailer to shout insults,
snap their fingers, bark at us or do just about anything to speed things up
(except, of course, throw a box themselves).
Not only was the combination of unrealistic expectations, high pressure and
decrepit equipment inefficient--it was just plain dangerous. Accidents were
a routine part of the job, but John’s complaints fell on deaf ears.
In fact, it was only after a wall of freight literally buried me alive--something
that the crew had been warning about for years prior--that we actually received
a replacement line.
I was struck so hard at the base of the skull that it knocked the natural curve
of my spine ramrod straight. According to the doctor who examined my X-rays,
I was lucky that I hadn’t been paralyzed. I was in physical therapy for
weeks--but back on the job at Wal-Mart in a matter of days, holding down the
fort in Ladies’ Garments, a point that management seemed to revel in making
over the radio.
It was a bureaucratic nightmare to get worker’s comp costs covered. There
was a succession of lost faxes, misplaced paperwork and endless games of phone
tag. While I was navigating this labyrinth, the word “union” began
to form in my vocabulary.
Apparently, women’s lingerie was Wal-Mart’s dumping ground for
the lame, and it didn’t take long before I found someone with a saga far
worse than mine--a co-worker whose wrist was crushed between a shelf and a clothing
cart. The injury required surgery, but thanks to Wal-Mart, the procedure was
delayed for five years, while the bills piled up. At the time, Wal-Mart was
self-insured, meaning that it had a legally sanctioned opportunity to manage
or mismanage its own claims.
“Don’t let management take care of it,” she advised me. “They’ll
try to guilt you into dropping it, or bully you into letting it go--make it
seem like you are hurting the company. But you have to look out for yourself.”
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BY THE time I was back on the line, I started floating the idea of a union
regularly--not as much to see if anyone was interested, but to find out if anyone
knew what to do.
The majority of the crew said they’d be in favor of a union, but most
raised the same concerns that came up when the Chicago City Council recently
considered an ordinance to require a living wage at “big box” retailers.
“If we were actually successful in getting a union,” went the argument,
“they would just shut down the store and set one up somewhere else.”
The store we worked at provided the perfect counter-argument to this common
objection to both union drives and living-wage laws. Nestled in a cluster of
affluent suburbs south of Chicago, the store operated in a community with heavy
retail competition, and where annual household income was considerably higher
than the state average.
But its primary customer base was drawn from poorer suburbs to the south--directly
accessible by a main road that literally fed into the Wal-Mart parking lot--and
an island of Section 8 public housing that had been built in its backyard. In
short, if the store was forced to relocate even a couple blocks from this site,
it would feel the pinch having contend with other stores and being cut off from
its primary source of poor and working class consumers.
A co-worker who had been through an organizing drive previously set up a meeting
with a contact from UCFW. Almost immediately after the meeting was set, it was
postponed. Since we worked receiving, the contact told us, we would probably
have to meet with somebody else. A different bureaucratic nightmare of rescheduled
appointments and unreturned phone calls followed.
While labor debated, Wal-Mart organized. Over the course of these few weeks,
a transfer from a store in Tennessee was brought onto the crew.
His story didn’t seem to add up from the start. Wal-Mart had footed the
bill for his transfer, and he was put into a quasi-supervisor position right
off the bat.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to keep the guys from inviting him
out to the bar with us, but his unconventional conversation topics eventually
exposed him as a union-buster. He seemed all too eager to know personal details
about the crew, including whether anyone ever stole from the trucks, who on
the crew did drugs, etc.
A couple of us finally came up with a plan to freeze him out. We developed
a habit of quoting movie lines about undercover narcs anytime he was working
the line. His meltdown resulted in an hour-and-45-minute closed-door session
with management, and a promotion to manager in another department two days later.
His last day on the line, he approached me, tried to shake my hand and said:
“I think that if we had met at another time, under different circumstances,
we would probably have been friends.” I told him I doubted it.
As Murphy explains, such tactics are routine. “Managers are expected
to take it personally if their employees want to organize,” he said. “At
one point, there was a store in Indiana that actually had a campaign underway.
Almost immediately, the district transferred managers and assistant managers
from throughout the Midwest to work there.
“They initiated these four-hour ‘labor relations’ meetings,
where they hand-picked supervisors from every department, through six levels
of management, to go over Wal-Mart propaganda--‘Why we are so successful,’
‘Why employees are better off without a union’-type bullshit.
“They trained us to look for employees that were ‘going against
the grain’--employees who not only were frustrated, but who were most
likely to do something about it--and we would fire them for bullshit excuses.
“So at least a hundred managers, probably more, from throughout the Midwest
actually turn up at this store in Indiana. There were at least one or two from
every store in the district. Seriously, what the hell do you need that many
managers for? That’s the way they operate though--a hundred managers can
be pretty intimidating.”
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AT MY job, with the union-buster out of the picture, Wal-Mart picked up the
pressure. Harassment from managers to speed up unloading grew more intense.
They locked the front doors and set the alarms so we wouldn’t be able
to leave without a member of management present, and visits from store security
became a routine part of our breaks.
At one point, a box of broken merchandise set aside for “claims”
mysteriously found its way onto a pallet to be pulled out to the floor, providing
the store with enough circumstantial evidence to shake things up on the docks
and formally interrogate members of the crew.
I was terminated a few months later. Four of us refused to unload a truck until
the manager left the dock. We sat on the boxes and waited patiently while she
turned red-faced and stormed off.
One by one, each of us was called into the office and grilled. Expressing a
truly unique form of motivational speaking, the overnight manager used an interesting
analogy when stressing to me the importance of accepting consequences. “Say
I was to lose my temper and punch you in the face,” he asked casually,
“there would be repercussions for such behavior, wouldn’t there?”
He then handed me a pink slip for “insubordination.”
The lessons I learned from this experience were invaluable. Only through a
focused effort to organize unions at Wal-Mart--one that extends beyond public
relations efforts and incorporates the whole of the labor movement--will wages
and conditions at the retail giant change.
The alarm has been ringing for years, and U.S. workers are awake to Wal-Mart’s
exploitation. It’s time for labor to take the cue.
Read from Looking Glsss News
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and you: How your tax dollars subsidize the world's largest corporation