Hold Wal-Mart accountable

Opinion

All across the country Wal-Mart is cashing in on family tragedies.

After Doug Sims, a Wal-Mart employee in Plainview, Texas, died of a heart attack in 1998, his wife, Jane, found out exactly what Wal-Mart means when it describes its employees as “valuable assets.”

When Doug was hired, Wal-Mart purchased a $64,000 dollar life insurance plan on him. Wal-Mart routinely buys life insurance policies on its employees – without their consent – and then cashes in, tax-free, when the employee dies. Wal-Mart currently maintains around 350,000 of these “Dead Peasant” insurance policies.

Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, employs over 1.4 million “associates” in 3,400 shopping centers and earns $130 billion in yearly sales revenue. The colossus controls more wealth than 90 percent of the countries across the globe. Wal-Mart’s sales for the first quarter of 2003 were $56.7 billion. While a $64,000 insurance policy doesn’t seem like a lot when compared to such staggering numbers, the betrayal felt by the families involved has no price tag.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Wal-Mart not only makes money off of dead employees; it also makes profits off the backs of its living workers. On the average, Wal-Mart “associates” are paid $3 less per hour than employees in union stores.

According to a 2002 Institute for Women’s Policy Research report, union-represented supermarket workers earn 31 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. Union supermarket workers are two-and-a-half times as likely to have pension coverage and twice as likely to have health insurance coverage as employees who aren’t represented by a union.

Also according to the report, the average wage in retail shopping centers for union members is $10.35, while the average wage for workers not represented by a union is $7.62.

As one of the largest unions in the country, the UFCW has won living wages, better health and vacation packages, and standardized grievance procedures for its members, ensuring employees a voice in their workplace and job security. In supermarket chains like Schnucks and Dierbergs in St. Louis, where the UFCW represents employees, living wages, retirement and health care plans are the norm.

At Wal-Mart, on the other hand, nearly half of all employees earn poverty wages. Thirty-five percent have no retirement plan, and 700,000 of Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million workers have no health care.

But that’s not all! Former Wal-Mart employees have sued the retail giant for forced unpaid overtime. Many more are suing because of color and racial discrimination. And hundreds of women are suing Wal-Mart over promotion and pay inequality.

All across small town America, where Wal-Mart stores are mostly located, community businesses have been forced to shut down. Wal-Mart’s purchasing power, which equals 56 percent of the entire retail industry, enables it to buy and sell its products at lower rates than competitors – usually family run stores – and grab a disproportionate share of the local consumer market. Small businesses just can’t compete.

Wal-Mart hurts local economies in other ways also. Many small town merchants deposit their holdings in local banks. Their deposits, and interest from these deposits, usually stay within the community through loans or other local investments. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, deposits its holdings in out-of-state banks, keeping the money from circulating in the local economy.

According to John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, “Wal-Mart is a corporate outlaw.”

Jane Sims agrees. The pain and betrayal she felt after her husband’s death cannot be mathematically formulated or equated. She can’t have her husband back. But something can be done.

The UFCW says Wal-Mart should be held accountable for its actions.

Which is why the union has called a National Day of Action against the retailer Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004.

Now is the time to start planning local activities educating consumers and employees alike about Wal-Mart’s anti-union policies.

UFCW members and supporters held actions outside of hundreds of different Wal-Mart stores during last year’s National Day of Action. They demanded that Wal-Mart respect employees’ right to unionize, pay living wages, provide affordable quality health care, treat injured workers fairly, end discriminatory practices, respect the environment and stop destroying small businesses.

Contact the UFCW (www.ufcw.org) to find out how you can help during this year’s National Day of Action.



Tony Pecinovsky is a labor activist in St. Louis, Mo. He can be reached at tonypec@pww.org