Saturday, June 04, 2005

There are no free lunches, they say. The hell there aren't, I say. Wal-Mart rakes in $2.5 BILLION a year in tax and insurance breaks from the federal and state and local governments. Okay, their lunch isn't completely free. Wal-Mart contributes to plenty of Republican campaigns, a little over a million dollars last year. But hey, those donations are a pittance compared to the payoff. You couldn't even liken it to just paying the tax on their free lunch because sales tax is seldom less than 5 percent. Their campaign contributions come to less than a tenth of a percent of $2.5 billion. If their lunch isn't free, then you'd have to call it a steal.
And the freebies are only part of the problem. Most of their employees get poverty wages, and 52 percent of them have no health insurance. Unfortunately, the giant's business model is a greedy inspiration to other corporations. If Wal-Mart can get away with it, so can we, they reason. In fact, if we don't behave the same way, Wal-Mart will sink us. In only one case so far has the biggest Box of them all faced serious resistance. Wal-Mart is currently the defendant in the largest class action lawsuit ever filed against a private company. A sex discrimination suit has been filed on behalf of its 1.6 million current and former women employees. Last year, it was thought that the possible payout could exceed a billion dollars. I don't know whether the tort "reform" (read "corporate bottomline protection") act will affect the size of damages.
In any case, something has to be done about Wal-Mart. Unions would love to get a toe in Wal-Mart's door, but they have to be realistic. A drive to unionize the retail behemoth is not practical at this point. Union-busting is almost a religion among Wal-Mart executives. I wrote as much last June:
Managers are taught how to screen potential employees to weed out the union troublemakers of the future. And before anyone is hired, she must sign a paper saying she'll never try to organize a union. That's illegal, but nobody's enforcing the laws against it. Inevitably, of course, some employees do try to organize. When that happens, a "'labor relations team'" is sent out by private plane to the offending store, "often the very day the call comes in." The only successful group ever to organize in the States was in Jacksonville, Texas, in 2000. Ten meatcutters voted 7 to 3 to unionize. Two weeks later, Wal-Mart switched to prepackaged meat in all its stores and assigned the butchers to other departments.

In fact, the only occasion on this continent where a store voted the union in was in Quebec recently. Wal-Mart immediately closed down the store.
So rather than beat their heads on the union-organizing wall, United Food and Commerical Workers (UFCW) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) plan instead to wage a PR campaign to educate Americans about how expensive it actually is to shop at Wal-Mart. Specifically the campaign will focus on health-care. Scrooge would nod approvingly over Wal-Mart's stingy health-care benefits, but taxpayers everywhere should be irate. In Montana, for example, forty percent of its employees are on Medicaid. The state of Arkansas--small as far as population and far from rich--spends $17 million a year on Medicaid for Wal-Mart employees alone.
The cost of public assistance for its employees and lost taxes because of TIF arrangements must be figured into the price of goods at Wal-Mart, and I, for one, am galled that I have to buy five-star lunches for the Walton heirs even though I refuse to shop at their stores. This campaign intends to inform Americans that Wal-Mart rakes in $10 billion a year in profits. It can afford and should be expected (or forced) to behave like a responsible corporate citizen.
Dave Cook of the UFCW spoke at the St. Louis meetup Wednesday night. He emphasized that taking on Wal-Mart cannot be just a union initiative. Wal-Mart would jump on a union drive as a chance to paint itself as a victim and win public sympathy. No, this drive must be supported by a broad grassroots coalition, and so the unions are moving to forge alliances with grassroots groups like DFA to challenge Wal-Mart about its dismal health-care policies.
I'm far from being through with this topic. In blogs to come, I'll be describing further cause for our indignation with W-M and offering suggestions for how you can help loosen the grip of this leech on our body politic.

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