Every time friends tell me they’re headed for Wal-Mart—friends who work at jobs where they tally their salary not by the year but by the hour—I have to bite my tongue to keep from asking them, “Why?”
The world’s biggest retailer is in a constant race to the bottom, moving production facilities and changing buyers from one moment to the next, trying to find the cheapest wages, the least amount of health care, the most it can eke out of every and any company, city, and nation. All in order to squeeze a few more pennies out of the costs of an item, so Wal-Mart can sell it that much cheaper.
Sure, my friends are getting a deal for that DVD, that sweater, those sneakers—but at what cost? As Americans move more jobs offshore to build stock prices and enrich the bottom line, what are we losing and why?
It was enlightening to read an article the Times published July 17 on the management and operation of Costco, one of Wal-Mart’s biggest rivals. The head of Costco, Jim Sinegal, who is reported to be worth $150 million due to his stock holdings, makes $350,000 a year (along with a $200,000 bonus last year).
While states like Maryland fight (and fail, thanks to our governor, who will whore himself for corporate money like a stripper to a C-note) to make big companies like Wal-Mart pay their fair share of health care for their workers, Costco’s employees pay 8 percent of their health-care costs, as opposed to the average 25 percent paid by most retail workers. This pisses Wall Street off. An analyst quoted by the Times says that Sinegal may be right that “a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden.”
Stock-market analysts frown with dismay when they see Costco selling high-ticket items for lower costs, paying their employees far more money, and paying more of their workers’ health insurance. But this is a Republican-run America, where the ideal is closer to 1905 than 2005—a country where unions are emasculated or nonexistent, robber barons make giant sums of money whether or not their companies show a profit or loss, and middle- and lower-class workers are forced to scrimp by shopping in stores that drive out local businesses, cut wages, and work political systems for every tiny advantage they can get—all so some member of a mega-rich family from Arkansas can die with a more obscene sum of money in the bank than the last.
In 2005, even shopping is a political act. Remember that the next time some artificially cheery greeter tells you, “Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart.”
I wish we had Costco in Tulsa but we don't. We still have alternatives to Walmart. From what I've read, Target is more fair to its employees than Walmart so that's a possibility. Please don't support a company that exploits its employees, forces manufacturing to be outsourced to China and simply closes stores when employees vote to unionize. Know that those few extra pennies you spend elsewhere are spent in the cause of greater justice.
Yes, shopping is a profoundly political act. A moral and ethical one too.