Does Wal-Mart speak for women? Wal-Mart has been hitting the airways with regular television commercials. A lot of them, maybe even most of them, depict happy women. Happy women shoppers and happy women workers.
There’s no question that the aisles at Wal-Mart are filled with women shoppers, and about 65 percent of all Wal-Mart employees are women — that’s the 65 percent seen predominantly behind the checkout counters and walking the aisles, not sitting behind desks in executive offices.
The executive jobs are 90 percent male.
Wal-Mart has stingy compensation policies. Workers average only about $8 an hour, with many making less, and if they want health insurance, they must pay a third of the premium.
These workers, the happy women, aren’t paid enough to allow them to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart understands the economy. They promote themselves to low-income people, and in their stores, the people who man the registers, hang up the clothes left in the dressing rooms, and help customers are low-income people.
Al Zack, who was vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers until his retirement in 2004, was quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saying, “Sam Walton figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with the business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow.”
One way to ensure that there will be plenty of poor people to shop in the stores is to create plenty of bad jobs worldwide. To do this, labor costs have to be kept down, and keeping those costs down means keeping unions out.
There have been wage and hour class action suits against Wal-Mart in several states. According to charges in some of these cases, workers were asked to keep working after they were “off the clock.”
It’s women who suffer most from the Wal-Mart labor practices. The suit Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the largest civil rights class action suit in history, charges that the company discriminates against women in both pay and promotion.
To stand back and look at the Wal-Mart strategy for success is to see that the company benefits tremendously from the low-pay, female work force not once but twice. By keeping the wages low, the retail giant is also creating customers from its own roster of employees.
Wal-Mart is a tremendous threat to the unionized worker, and they hire lobbyists to fight against any labor reform and against paying a “living wage.” Wal-Mart may have a loud voice when it speaks for its employees here in the United States, but when it speaks to its suppliers it has a really loud roar.
To sell at the lowest possible price, it has to buy at an extremely low cost. It demands that suppliers bring down the prices on the goods Wal-Mart buys.
How do the suppliers do that? By manufacturing in countries where labor is cheap.
In some countries, workers work seven days a week, 13- to 16-hour days. For most, there are no health and safety provisions. And, just like the Wal-Mart ads that show women employees and women shoppers, many of these factory workers are women. Many of these poor women factory workers are being paid as little as 13 cents an hour.
The strength of our nation has come from the working class. The working class has traditionally made up the middle class, the people who buy the cars, take the two-week summer vacation, buy the braces for the kid’s teeth and take out a mortgage on a home.
The Wal-Mart working class does not have this strength. An eight-hour workweek for the Wal-Mart woman does not produce a living wage.
Mary Sheets is a reporter for The Labor Paper, published by the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council in Peoria, Ill. This article is reprinted from the paper’s Jan. 20 issue by permission of the author.