November 15, 2003
The Wal-Martization of America
The 70,000 grocery workers on strike in Southern California are the front
line in a battle to prevent middle-class service jobs from turning into
poverty-level ones. The supermarkets say they are forced to lower their
labor costs to compete with Wal-Mart, a nonunion, low-wage employer
aggressively moving into the grocery business. Everyone should be
concerned about this fight. It is, at bottom, about the ability of retail
workers to earn wages that keep their families out of poverty.
Grocery stores in Southern California are bracing for the arrival, in
February, of the first of 40 Wal-Mart grocery supercenters. Wal-Mart's
prices are about 14 percent lower than other groceries' because the
company is aggressive about squeezing costs, including labor costs. Its
workers earn a third less than unionized grocery workers, and pay for much
of their health insurance. Wal-Mart uses hardball tactics to ward off
unions. Since 1995, the government has issued at least 60 complaints
alleging illegal anti-union activities.
Southern California's supermarket chains have reacted by demanding a
two-year freeze on current workers' salaries and lower pay for newly hired
workers, and they want employees to pay moTre for health insurance. The
union counters that if the supermarkets match Wal-Mart, their workers will
be pushed out of the middle class. Those workers are already only a step --
or a second family income -- from poverty, with wages of roughly $18,000 a
year. Wal-Mart sales clerks make about $14,000 a year, below the $15,060
poverty line for a family of three.
Wal-Mart may also be driving down costs by using undocumented immigrants.
Last month, federal agents raided Wal-Marts in 21 states. Wal-Mart is
facing a grand jury investigation, and a civil racketeering class-action
filed by cleaners who say they were underpaid when working for contractors
hired by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart insists that it was unaware of its
contractors' practices. But aware or not, it may have helped to deprive
legally employable janitors of jobs and adequate pay.
This Wal-Martization of the work force, to which other low-cost, low-pay
stores also contribute, threatens to push many Americans into poverty. The
first step in countering it is to enforce the law. The government must act
more vigorously, and more quickly, when Wal-Mart uses illegal tactics to
block union organizing. And Wal-Mart must be made to pay if it exploits
Unions understand that the quickest way to win this war is to organize
Wal-Mart workers. And Wal-Mart's competitors have to strive for Wal-Mart's
efficiency without making workers bear the brunt. Consumers can also play
a part. Wal-Mart likes to wrap itself in American values. It should be
reminded that one of those is paying workers enough to give their families
a decent life.
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