Wal-Mart and Community Responsibility

By Sidney Pucek of Reedsport, Oregon. Sidney is a "social justice and peace activist."

Last week in dozens of cities in Oregon the film, WALMART: The high cost of low price, by Robert Greenwald was shown. From Lane Community College to my home with ten people, activists gathered around to see a documentary about America's largest employer and retailer.

After the show the people that came to my house asked what we could do to address some of the problems exposed in the film. There is a Walmart in Coos Bay that many people on the South Coast shop at. After the showing we discussed how we could fight the dumbing down of America, from asking people to think about shopping at unionized stores like Safeway, Albertsons or Fred Meyer, stopping future Walmarts by attending planning meetings or trying to raising the local media awareness of Walmarts practices.

But one thing that the film raised was the hidden subsidies that Walmart gets by being so cheap to their employees. The film gave graphic details about how many Walmart employees actually qualify for WIC and other state assistance programs.

In Maryland there is a bill in the legislature to force Walmart and large employers to spend at least 8% of the payroll on employee benefits. The idea being that either employers are spending that much or they will contribute to that amount to programs like WIC.

This Baltimore Sun article mentions that six other states are considering similar legislation. The Maryland "Fair Share Health Care Act" seems like a natural complement for Oregon's Oregon Health Plan.

I think that this is a program that warrants support from the Oregon Democratic Party and that all Oregonians could support. Can we find a legislator to support its introduction?

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Don't forget about employee owned stores like Winco. I typically shop there as the prices are low enough for me to feed my family, yet I'm not just buying from a company that doesn't care about its employees (Wal-Mart).

    As I've told several people, I find that one of the biggest draws to Wal-Mart is its lawaway. With the exceptions of clearanced items and harardous materials, you can basically place anything in layaway. You only have to put down 10% (no fees) and you have 60 days to pay it off. Fail to pay it off, they put the items back and you're refunded the money you put on the layaway.

    Many people think layaway isn't a big draw, as people have credit cards. This isn't true. Wal-Mart does millions and millions of layaways every year-- their biggest times are the two months before school starts and before Christmas.

    Ever been by a Wal-Mart around the holidays and noticed all those big metal storage containers (the kind you see on the back of a semi-truck or on a train)? Those are full of layaways.

    There are many people who can't afford to buy Christmas presents or school clothes in one payment. But we all know what happens if you hold onto your money and wait until the last minute-- everything you're looking for is gone. That's what makes layaway so popular.

    I've been trying to get more stores to offer layaway programs for their customers. If we can get more places to do it, we can help draw away Wal-Mart's customers. After all, they may be able to go to Albertson's, Safeway, Fred Meyer, etc. for their groceries, but they still need some place to buy toys, school supplies, clothes, etc.

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    For a lot of people like me, the choice usually comes down to Wal-Mart or Target. Where I live Wal-Mart is closer, but I will drive to Target if I am really accomplishing anything. I have not seen any negative comments about Target so I guess they are more progressive? Sometimes I wonder whether the extra gasoline consumption and air pollution I cause when making the long drive to Target is really helping society.

  • (Show?)

    Buy Blue rates Target as being a "red" store.

    I've heard a lot better things about them from many employees regarding pay and health care, though. I've read a few articles that say otherwise, but I've heard plenty from employees there (none of them in management) that say the opposite. Some of them have worked for Target for years.

    They've also won some awards regarding treatment of employees who are National Guard members and were activated for Iraq/Afghanistan.

    But I do know that Target needs to do better than it does.

  • chris McMullen (unverified)
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    I hope ya'll don't plan on shopping at Sears or Home Depot. They're non-union companies, too -- just like WalMart.

    BTW, Ikea is getting a tax-subsidised, sweetheart deal -- they're going in right off of Airport way. Oh, and they're non-union. And they're the world's largest furniture retailer.

    Can someone point me to the "Keep-Ikea-out-of-Portland" website?

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    For me it is not a union vs. non-union issue because except for grocery stores there are very few union retail stores of any type except maybe places like Nordstrom or Saks which I can't afford anyway. I just want to be able to buy what I need at a price I can afford from a store that does not offend my principles.

  • (Show?)

    Chris--

    This isn't just about being non-union, after all the majority of stores today don't have unions. If there is a union alternative, which there are plenty of union grocery stores in he Portland metro area, it's best to shop there. Or an employee owned store.

    But it's about more than just not being unionized.

    And this also isn't about being the biggest (insert whatever) store in the country/world.

    It's about the way a store treats its employees.

    No other retailer has as many of its employees on state assistance as Wal-Mart. In Maryland where they were working on that bill, Wal-Mart was the only one not currently spending 8% on health care-- instead it was the taxpayers who were paying so Wal-Mart's low income employees could have health care.

    Stores like Wal-Mart get away with their low prices (and HUGE profit margins) by keeping their pay low (lower than the industry average) and offering no benefits or benefits that are so expensive and cover so little that they're not worth the cost. The taxpayers end up footing the difference, with food stamps, Section 8 housing, WIC, state health care, etc.

  • Bailie (unverified)
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    Jenni,

    You say, "It's about the way a store treats its employees."

    No one makes anyone apply for work at WalMart. If they do apply there for work, they know about the situation. If they don't like working at WalMart, they can quit.

    Are you suggesting no one should shop at a business that doesn't pay all of their employees a "living wage"? There are many "mom and pop" stores that can only afford minimum wage and no benefits. Do you boycott them, also? You have that right, but it is interesting.

    WalMart is the most popular store in most locations. That should tell you something. This is about union vs. non-union. That is why the unions are pumping so much money into this "dump WalMart" movement. Democrats/"progressives" are obligated to follow the union lead and they are expending considerable energy. So far without significant results.

  • (Show?)

    I never mentioned "living wage" in the above discussion. I think sometimes you read too much into what someone says, making assumptions as to what it would mean.

    And I never encouraged everyone to boycott any place that doesn't pay a "living wage." I talked about treating employees well.

    Wal-Mart pays well under the average for its own industry. It could do a lot just by raising its wages to meet the current industry average.

    Wal-Mart can afford to do this-- it would not put them in the red. They'll still make tons of money every year. They don't have a small profit margin as some small businesses do-- they can more than afford to raise employees' salaries.

    Yes, people can quit. But where are they going to go? The economy may appear to be recovering, but those numbers aren't what people think they are. Studies show that many of those previously listed as unemployed have either dropped off unemployment or are underemployed. And there are hundreds like me out there who were contract workers and were never included in the unemployment numbers in the first place.

    There just aren't that many places for them to go. They'll continue to work at Wal-Mart while looking for a new one. As soon as they find a new one, they leave. But that could take months, and in the meantime the taxpayers are making up the difference.

    When they were hired, they were told the job came with benefits such as health care. However, it's not until later that they find out that management won't give them enough hours to qualify or that the cost is so much that they'll hardly bring home any money. I know this from experience-- I've had family members work there and I went through the process of getting a job there myself while going through college.

    The health care costs more for employees than it would at a "mom and pop" shop or small business-- which is out of the ordinary. A small business' health care costs so much because they are only purchasing it for a few employees. Wal-Mart is one of the biggest employers in the nation-- they could buy health insurance at a much cheaper cost to employees. They choose not to.

    Many people work at Wal-Mart because it's all they could find and the job is the only thing thet keeps them and their family from living on the streets.

    Smaller "mom and pop" shops are actually more likely to be paying higher than minimum wage than you may think. I've known numerous people who have worked at such places and have always made higher than minimum wage. Studies show that wages and benefits are such "mom and pop" shops are often better than Wal-Mart.

    These employees are often treated better by their employers-- they're more understanding about illnesses and family emergencies, are actually nice to their employees, etc.

    If they don't offer benefits or offer expensive benefits, it's not because they just chose to-- it's extremely costly for small businesses to offer health insurance. My dad owned his own business until recently. He couldn't afford to offer the handful of guys who worked for him health care, but he made sure they were paid well. All were paid not only more than minimum wage, but higher than the average for the area.

    But I never said these places had to pay a living wage.

    And no, it's not about union vs. non-union. Yes, the unions are working on this movement. But there are also plenty of groups that are non-union that are working on it-- and it has absolutely nothing to do with any obligation to do so.

    Democrats and Progressives don't just jump to do anything the unions want them to. There's actually been a divide growing over the years between the two. You may occasionally see a local county or state party do a resolution about a company where a union is having difficulty, but that's about it. This idea that Dems/Progressives have an obligation to jump and do anything the unions want them to do is 100% BS.

    And yes, we have had significant results. There are plenty of locations where Wal-Mart has been kept out of due to efforts of dems, progressives, union members, and people in the community.

    Unions have gone into several Wal-Mart locations, causing Wal-Mart to do things like shut down the entire store. They're now in big legal trouble.

    It's because of progressives, dems, and union members that Wal-Mart has dozens and dozens of lawsuits sitting in court against them. They've also been busted for not paying people for hours worked, forcing people to work off the clock, etc. because of the diligence of dems, progressives, and union members.

    These changes aren't going to happen overnight, you know. Sam Walton built up Wal-Mart to be an extremely popular company-- one that treated its employees right, gave grants to small businesses so they could expand and supply Wal-Mart with products, and bought American. Everything changed the day Sam died. It's now a company that cares nothing for the community its in or its own employees. It will take a while to educate the public as to the fact that Sam's Wal-Mart is no more. It will take a while to make the company change its ways and stop using sweatshops in Asia to supply its products.

  • Bailie (unverified)
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    Jenni,

    You say, "Many people work at Wal-Mart because it's all they could find and the job is the only thing thet keeps them and their family from living on the streets."

    So why are you blaming WalMart for hiring them? That is just doesn't make sense. Are you suggesting that these people would be better-off living on the streets than working for WalMart? I am not a fan of WalMart, but I wouldn't condemn them for hiring someone so they don't have "to live on the streets".

    Why would "Democrats, Progressives and unions" worry so much about the workers at WalMart, when the workers at WalMart are grateful for the job? WalMart is the most popular retail store on earth.

    You say, "It's because of progressives, dems, and union members that Wal-Mart has dozens and dozens of lawsuits sitting in court against them."

    Congratulations.

    I do agree that it is good to support local businesses in every way a person can, including lower taxes.

  • (Show?)

    I never said anyone would be better off living on the streets than they would working for Wal-Mart.

    What they're doing is taking advantage of their employees, as they know the liklihood of them being able to find another job is slim. We shouldn't congratulate them for doing that, but push for them to raise their wages and improve their benefits.

    The majority of people working for Wal-Mart are women and many of them are trying to support a family on that income. Instead of being able to be home and raise their kids, they're working a second job so they can make enough to survive.

    They aren't "grateful" for the job-- they settled for it because it was what was available. They're happy to have a job so they have some money coming in.

    I don't think a person who is working 35+ hours a week should have to work multiple jobs just to earn enough for an adult and a child to survive. I'm not talking about having extra money for fast food, or to buy a car, or to buy a house. I'm talking enough money for a tiny apartment, electricity, a way to/from work, and some food on the table. Basic survival.

    We shouldn't applaud a business that takes advantage of its employees just because it knows they badly need the jobs and aren't likely to leave. Just because they give people who need jobs the jobs, does not mean they can pay bottom-basement wages and terrible benefits.

    Yes, they are the most popular retail company in the world. However, they don't act like it. They act like they have a tiny profit margin that would be eaten up if they paid the industry average wage.

    Nobody's asking them to pay the highest wages in the industry. And no one's asking them to offer benefits that are better than their competitor's.

    We're asking them to increase their wages to at least the industry average and to improve their benefits so that employees can actually afford them. We're asking them to pay their employees for the hours they work-- don't make them clock out and do additional work, don't lock them in the store at night so they can't get out once their work is done, etc. And we're asking them to stop using sweatshop labor to make their goods (a pair of $13 pants cost more than some of the people making those pants make in a month).

    That is not so much to ask. Many of their competitors are already paying the higher wages and have more affordable benefits. Other stores have been cautious about paying their employees for work done. And other companies have stopped using overseas sweatshops for their products. What about Wal-Mart?

  • km (unverified)
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    Walmart offers something for most people to dislike, regardless of whether you are union or non-.

    • They force companies like Proctor & Gamble to sell products at or below cost (when you're dealing with a company as large as Walmart it can be detrimental to say no). To make up for the loss, P&G (and others) turn around and sell their products to smaller businesses at a higher price, which in turn is passed onto the consumer.
    • They hurt local small businesses by underselling. Small businesses are not able to sell goods at those deep discounts. Eventually those small businesses close up shop.
    • They pay lower wages than other similar companies & they avoid offering healthcare (they'll send employees home before they hit "full-time" status).
    • They represent the most insidious form of corporate welfare by paying a majority of their employees so poorly that they qualify for various forms of government aid, costing US taxpayers millions if not billions of dollars.
    • They sell products that come from sweatshops abroad.
    • Any profits turned in the state of Oregon, are shipped off to Arkansas (buy local, benefit local).
    • They allow their pharmacists to refuse to administer legal prescriptions for birth control to women. (Target & Rite-Aid also suffer this crime).

    Those are just the ones off the top of my head but I know there's more.

  • Bailie (unverified)
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    km and jenni, I'm curious as to who feeds you this material? You present it as though it was typical of all stores, rather than isolated cases. Can you give any links which are unbiased and not paid by special interests?

    No one in the world forces Proctor & Gamble to do anything. To the contrary, businesses line up for the opportunity to sell their products to WalMart.

    The majority of Wal-Mart's hourly store associates in the United States work full-time. That's well above the 20 - 40 percent typically found in the retail industry. Wal-Mart’s average full-time hourly wage nationally is $9.68 an hour, higher in urban areas. For example: Chicago, $10.69; Austin, TX, $10.69; Washington D.C./Baltimore, $10.08; Atlanta, $10.80; and in Los Angeles, $9.99.

    Wal-Mart benefits - available to full and part-time associates - include health care insurance with no lifetime maximum. Associate premiums begin at less than $40 per month for an individual and less than $155 per month for a family, no matter how large.

    Other benefits include a profit-sharing and 401(k) plan, merchandise discounts, company-paid life insurance and vacation pay.

  • Bev Kistner (unverified)
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    My son, a college graduate, who came down with a mental illness while in college, is still looking for a job. He is on the gov't programs but is not proud to accept any assistance. He has yet to find any employer who will hire him. He has no criminal history whatsoever & was a wonderful dedicated student. Find anyone, including Wal-Mart or Target that will hire him without work experience, to give him a chance. So far no company has! He would be so proud to just be given a chance to prove himself.

    The best part about being employed, is that you get experience, then after a few years you can move on to a better job! Everyone needs to prove themselves and a store is one of the best places to start - God willing.

  • (Show?)

    Much of the information comes straight from Wal-Mart themselves-- it's in their reports they release to stockholders, it's available to you if you go through the process of being hired by them, etc.

    I've seen the same info, along with studies conducted by cities and universities, with additional info about the amount of tax dollars a city loses for every sq. ft. of store space, average amount of tax dollars spent per employee for state services, etc. Yes, a lot of the union and anti-Wal-Mart sites have the same info I'm saying-- that's because it's all coming from the same reports from Wal-Mart or studies done.

    Your numbers for their healthcare aren't telling the whole picture. That is for the cheapest plan Wal-Mart offers. That plan has a $1,000 deductible for single coverage and a $3,000 deductible for family coverage ($1,000 deductible per person covered up to $3,000). That $1000 has to be paid out before the insurance covers anything. You have to realize that the average Wal-Mart full-time employee only makes about $17,000 a year-- paying out $3K before the insurance will pay anything is a huge chunk of change for many people. This is why only 48% of its employees opt for health care-- and that includes managers, those in the corporate offices, etc. In reality, only a small chunk of its non-management store workers end up with insurance.

    And you cannot get insurance as a part-timer until you've been there two years-- and they're only eligible for individual coverage. Full time employees must wait 180 days before being eligible-- most retail places only have a 90 day wait.

    This info comes straight from the associate handbooks that are given to employees-- not some "rah rah" and "they're picking on us" speech from Wal-Mart.

    Another point is that Wal-Mart's "full time" numbers can't be compared to other stores. Why, you ask? Because most stores consider 40+ hours to be full-time (some say at least 38 hours). Wal-Mart considers you full-time at 34 hours and will not typically schedule you for a full 40 hours. If you end up working extra, they'll send you home early at the end of the week so you won't hit 40 hours.

    I'd like to see you pull information that isn't straight from a speech given by H. Lee Scott Jr., the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart. The numbers given in his speech are way off from the acutal numbers and are often made to look better by including in managers and those in the corporate office.

  • LT (unverified)
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    Just read something comparing Walmart and Costco. Walmart had lower pay and benefits than Costco, and also lower profits.

    10 years ago I was proofreading papers for a friend getting an MBA. Guess what they were learning then is still true--treat your employees well, they will stay longer, and the productivity and profits will be better than paying employees like the lowest common denominator.

    The question is: are employees costs or assets. Seems to me the best run companies treat them as assets. Often the customer service is better where employees are treated as assets.

  • (Show?)

    There will be a City Club forum on big box retailing on Dec 9th. I'm pretty sure because I've been asked to moderate. Why, I'm not sure. Just a loudmouth, I suspect.

  • (Show?)

    Correction: said forum has been cancelled. WalMart was unable (or unwilling) to send a representative.

  • Megan (unverified)
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    My fiance and I went to see a screening of the film at a library in Richland. It was sponsored by a DFA group I joined after moving to Eastern Oregon from Portland. It's a shame I had to travel more than 35 miles across the Columbia to see this film as there were no screenings in the area I live. I live a couple towns over from Hermiston where Walmart has a huge DC and Supercenter. We no longer have a grocery store in the town I live because they couldn't compete with Walmart. Everyone bitches about Walmart, but most people still shop there. I've been guilty of doing this too, because it's one of the very few stores within a 30 mile radius that's actually open past 10pm.

    I didn't realize how big an issue this was until I moved out here to what I call "rural" America. When I lived in Portland I would do most of my shopping at WinCo or Fred Meyer. When given the choice between Walmart and Target I would usually choose Target because they were closer and it was much easier to find parking there. I really miss WinCo and after the screening we stopped at the new one in Richland to pick up a few things even though we had to pay sales tax. I also miss Trader Joes! I make a stop there everytime I go HOME to visit my parents.

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