In the wake of the recent (failed) union vote at the Wal-Mart store in Windsor, Ontario,
Wal-Mart employees voted down a union certification bid yesterday [March 8] amid allegations the retail giant and the union both engaged in unfair labour practices.
it's worth refreshing our collective memories -- what is it that makes Wal-Mart so popular? And the answer is easy: low prices. And how do they keep those prices so deliciously low? Well, by paying their employees crap wages. This is not a tough connection to make, but there's more to it than that.
It's well known that a disturbing percentage of U.S. Wal-Mart employees, because they're paid so poorly, actually have to take advantage of various social services such as food stamps. This is, of course, a terrific deal for Wal-Mart -- they get to pay their workers low wages and let the social safety net pick up the slack, in effect letting the general public subsidize their business practices. Is that a great deal or what? The shoppers revel in the low prices, not realizing that their own taxes are helping to keep them that low. But wait. It gets better.
From this January 2005 online article, we read that Wal-Mart doesn't just quietly turn a blind eye to its workers needing various forms of social services to stay afloat, oh no -- they were right there, giving them a helping hand to do it:
California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who represents the 22nd Assembly District and is a former mayor of Mountain View, was outraged when she learned about the sex-discrimination charges in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, and she smelled blood when, tipped off by dissatisfied workers, her office discovered that Wal-Mart was encouraging its workers to apply for public assistance, "in the middle of the worst state budget crisis in history!" California had a $38 billion deficit at the time, and Lieber was enraged that taxpayers would be subsidizing Wal-Mart's low wages, bringing new meaning to the term corporate welfare.
And what happens if you can leech off of social services as a substitute for paying competitive wages? Not surprisingly, companies that play fair really can't compete:
Lieber was angry, too, that Wal-Mart's welfare dependence made it nearly impossible for responsible employers to compete with the retail giant. It was as if taxpayers were unknowingly funding a massive plunge to the bottom in wages and benefits -- quite possibly their own. She held a news conference in July 2003, to expose Wal-Mart's welfare scam. The Wal-Mart documents -- instructions on how to apply for food stamps, Medi-Cal (the state's health care assistance program) and other forms of welfare -- were blown up on poster board and displayed. The morning of the news conference, a Wal-Mart worker who wouldn't give her name for fear of being fired snuck into Lieber's office. "I just wanted to say, right on!" she told the assemblywoman.
Wal-Mart spokespeople have denied that the company encourages employees to collect public assistance, but the documents speak for themselves. They bear the Wal-Mart logo, and one is labeled "Wal-Mart: Instructions for Associates." Both documents instruct employees in procedures for applying to "Social Service Agencies."
Naturally, there is the inveitable right wing-inspired irony:
Most Wal-Mart workers I've interviewed had co-workers who worked full time for the company and received public assistance, and some had been in that situation themselves. Public assistance is very clearly part of the retailer's cost-cutting strategy. (It's ironic that a company so dependent on the public dole supports so many right-wing politicians who'd like to dismantle the welfare state.)
Which brings us back north of the border. What's the situation here? Do Canadian Wal-Mart stores have the same business practises? The phone lines are open.