Is the Wal-Mart Way the American Way?

Posted on 19 April 2011

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By Martin J. Bennett

"We need to uphold the law, we need to apply the law and we need to allow this project to move forward. I believe that not to do so would be un-American." So stated Rohnert Park (Sonoma County) City Councilwoman Amy Breeze last summer when the council voted to approve a controversial Wal-Mart supercenter--despite a year long campaign against the project by a broad coalition of labor, environmental, and community organizations.

The Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County challenges Ms. Breeze's definition of Americanism. Though we respect her point of view, we think she is dead wrong. Wal-Mart, we believe, has betrayed fundamental American values. As the largest retailer and private employer in America, no other company has such a profound impact upon our economy and labor markets. It is time for Wal-Mart to change, or face a growing opposition to its plan to build at least one supercenter in every county of California.

There is no better authority on the American economy and American values than our 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt proposed an 'Economic Bill of Rights' in 1944 that would guarantee all Americans "an American standard of living higher than ever known." Roosevelt believed that all Americans, according to Stanford historian David Kennedy, regardless of race, religion, or gender, were "entitled to a job, a living wage, decent housing, adequate medical care, a good education" as well as social insurance such as old age pensions, and unemployment and disability benefits. FDR's Economic Bill of Rights, also known as the 'Second Bill of Rights,' asserted that every business should operate in a marketplace free from unfair competition and monopoly control.

Let's compare FDR's vision with Wal-Mart's business practices and ask these questions: What are America's values? What economic rights are all Americans entitled to?

The President proclaimed in 1933, "No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level--I mean the wages of a decent living."

Does Wal-Mart meet the "living wage" test? A typical full-time Wal-Mart worker in 2010 earned $12.10 an hour according to the company. This wage level is well below a self-sufficiency or living wage for Sonoma County in 2010 which the California Budget Project set at $19.11 an hour, a rate that will enable two parents working full-time to support two children and to pay for housing, food, health care, transportation, and childcare.

FDR's vision embraced "the right of every family to a decent home." Yet, according to the Center for Housing Policy, in 2009 a family in Sonoma County needed to earn $96,119 a year to afford the median priced home of $322,000. However, the annual family income of two parents working full-time at Wal-Mart is $42,786, or just 45 percent of the income needed to afford the median-priced home. In fact, the income of the typical Wal-Mart family is so low as to qualify for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 rent subsidies. Isn't earning an income sufficient to purchase a home or to afford the rent the bedrock of American values?

Roosevelt's Bill of Rights included "the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health." Yet the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that in 2009 less than 50 percent of Wal-Mart employees and their children received health benefits. In comparison, Raley's, Safeway, and Costco in Northern California provide health care benefits to 80 percent of their employees.

Who picks up the tab when uninsured Wal-Mart employees fall ill? A UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education 2004 study found that uninsured Wal-Mart employees in California relied on programs like Medi-Cal and Healthy Families at an annual cost of $32 million to the taxpayer. Moreover, Wal-Mart employees who lack medical insurance also rely on hospital emergency rooms and public clinics. According to the New American Foundation, in 2006 the state of California and all its counties spent $1.8 billion annually to provide uncompensated care to 1.3 million uninsured adults. What are real American values given this sorry state of affairs?

Roosevelt claimed that all Americans should receive "protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment." Yet Wal-Mart does not offer employees a retirement program that guarantees a fixed monthly income. After one year on the job, Wal-Mart's employees receive a 401K with employer profit-sharing contributions. Due to low pay, unpredictable shift assignments, and the demanding workload, nearly 50 percent of Wal-Mart employees quit in their first year, so only a minority of workers are employed long enough to become eligible for the 401K.

Roosevelt was a strong supporter of organized labor and stated that the federal government must protect the "fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer." He championed the passage of the National Labor Relations Action in 1935 that guaranteed the right of all workers to form a union and to bargain for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Roosevelt declared, "If I were a worker in a factory, the first thing I would do is to join the union."

But not one Wal-Mart in the United States is unionized. Human Rights Watch, in a 2007 report, decried Wal-Mart's legal and illegal union-busting tactics and claimed that "the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its antiunion apparatus and actions" and "based on our research we conclude that the cumulative effect of Wal-Mart's panoply of anti-union tactics, is to deprive its workers of their internationally recognized right to organize."

To add injury to insult, Wal-Mart managers and supervisors cut labor costs by refusing to comply with labor protections such as the Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938. In 2008, the company settled 63 federal and state class-action lawsuits charging that Wal-Mart violated wage and hour laws, failing to pay its workers for overtime and off the clock work and denying workers meal and rest breaks. Wal-Mart agreed to pay at least $352 million and up to $640 million to present and former employees.

The company also faces the largest class action suit in history on behalf of 1.6 million past and present female employees for wage discrimination and promotion gender-bias. So how does Wal-Mart's record of union busting, disregard for federal labor law, and systematic discrimination against women square with basic American values?

Finally, Roosevelt emphasized in his Economic Bill of Rights that all businesses had the right "to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies." A recent Retail Forward  report found that for every super center that opens in a major metropolitan area, two existing supermarkets will close. UC Irvine economist David Neumark concluded in a 2007 study that for every new job created by Wal-Mart in a county, 1.5 jobs are lost elsewhere as existing retailers and grocers lose market share or shut down --and remember that according to the New York University Brennan Center in 2007, the average wage of a Wal-Mart employee was 26 percent less than other large merchandise stores and 18 percent less than large grocery stores.

'Always lower prices' is a consequence of Wal-Mart's relentless quest to drive down labor rates. The Wal-Mart way is based upon poverty-wage jobs and destroying local business, particularly union and nonunion grocers that pay a living wage and provide comprehensive benefits. Is this the American way?

Good jobs and career mobility, equal opportunity and nondiscrimination, fair competition and corporate accountability, and respect for worker's rights are fundamental American values. Wal-Mart needs to live-up to these values-and it can afford to do so.

Wal-Mart's global sales surpassed $400 billion in 2009 and profits were 14 billion. CEO Michael Duke earned $19.2 million compensation and total compensation for the top five Wal-Mart executives was $65 million in 2010. According to Forbes magazine, the combined wealth of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's four children, who hold 40 percent of the company stock, was more than $84 billion in 2010--an amount greater than the combined annual income of the bottom 40 percent of Americans, or about 120 million people.

So what's it going to be: Wal-Mart's brand of naked greed or the values of Roosevelt and his Economic Bill of Rights? What's really "un-American," Councilwoman Breeze?


Martin J. Bennett teaches American history at Santa Rosa Junior College and serves as Co-Chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County. For more information about the anti-Wal-Mart superstore campaign please to to:

What a left wing union lackey! First off, is Wal-Mart paying more than the minimum wage? Yes they are, so get over yourself. Have you ever shopped at Wal-Mart? They hire a lot of people and the elderly that no one else would hire. Tell your union buddies to quite whining because there is nothing they can do about it. Here in Bakersfield they tried to stop Wal-Mart, and guess who those people were? Yep, they were all a bunch of union hacks, but they couldn’t stop them because this is a free country. The citizens of this country have the right to shop anywhere they want, and Wal-Mart has the right to pay whatever they want as long as it is above the minimum wage-GET OVER IT!

Comment by a right wing, knuckle dragging web troller...sigh...

The only conclusion I come to is you guys are plants for industry...what other human beings so ardently defend companies like Walmart, Chevron, Wall Street, the Banks, the super rich, the chemical industry, big pharma, and on down the list instead of actual PEOPLE (rather than corporations) and issues related to quality of life? Another hint is how you all spout talking points blasted our DIRECTLY from their Board Rooms and GOP (i.e. corporate lobbyists) campaign consultants.

I guess the only consolation I have that so many of you comment on this site is that A. it adds more hits to it, and B. the sheer ignorance displayed actually helps make the case of the articles published...

Typical Liberal, it has nothing to do with big corporations, it has to do with the government telling us what to do. As a small business owner how big does my business have to be before they start telling me what wages to pay? Or who decides if I might be to competitive, and shut me down? What if someone decides that I am to successfulI and hurting my competition, so I can't expand my business? If the minimun wage is $7.00 hour and I average $12.00 dollars an hour am I breaking the law? Should someone make me pay more or should they raise the minnimum wage? What about the small business owners who are paying minimum wage? I havn't heard you complain about them, just Wal-Mart. Maybe someone in the government can tell me how much I am supposed to pay my managers, I shouldnt pay them to much, right.

Wal-Mart isn't our problem, it is your twisted liberal agenda that's the problem; socialism doesn't work! Councilwoman Breeze is right; it is un-American to not let Wal-Mart build wherever they want, this is a free country. If you don't like it, start your own department store and compete with Wal-Mart; Sam Walton started with nothing. Tell your left wing power hungry union thugs I said, "HI."

Anonymous, I guess you don't mind that you, the taxpayer, has to pay to subsidize Walmart and other BIG BOX store employees.

Poverty wages bring... POVERTY, and with poverty comes medical care, housing and food paid for by people like you that welcome these corporate leeches into our communities, stand up be an American and demand living wage values so people can take care of themselves, the banks and investors already have enough of our money, we can no longer afford to subsidize their lifestyles...

You have got to be kidding! You complain about Wal-Mart when we have 12 million illegals milking our society out of everything we have; and that is ok? Liberalism is truly a mental disorder!

I think whatthe liberal is trying to say is that it would be better if the people making $12.50/hr at Wal-Mart were to stay at home on the dole. Not only would it be better for the unions, but being on the dole would guarantee that they voted correctly in the next election.

Bennett is just a paid union stooge, if they told him to eat dog
turds he would be on all fours looking for them. Of course, with that huge beer belly he has, getting down on all fours would mean he probably would not be able to get up again. He has his head in the 20th century, one of the primary supporters of Obama's health care reform plan was Wal Mart. It is one of the few large corporations in America that actually cares about poor people. I would hate to think how high prices would be on basic necessities if Wal Mart was not around. Here is some more info for EL Stupido: Hillary Clinton once served on the Wal Mart Board of Directors and they were one of the early supporters of Bill Clinton's bid to become President.