By Ellen David Friedman
Listen to this commentary on VPR: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/vpr/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=872541
If Wal-Mart expands in Vermont – as it clearly intends to do – some will say this is great thing: New jobs and low cost goods. Not me. I know too much about Wal-Mart to want them to have more influence in my state. Here’s why:
Wal-Mart doesn’t pay employees for all the hours they work. In California last week, for example, Wal-Mart was found to have deprived one hundred and sixteen thousand workers of their legally guaranteed lunch breaks. And there are currently over 40 pending wage-and-hour cases against Wal-Mart in twenty states.
Wal-Mart exploits undocumented workers. Last March Wal-Mart was ordered to pay eleven million dollars to immigrant workers who’d been forced to work off the clock cleaning stores.Wal-Mart discriminates against women. In 2001 a law suit found that women working for Wal-Mart averaged five thousand two hundred dollars a year less in wages then men. And just a year and a half ago, the largest class action lawsuit in history was filed on behalf of one point six million current and former women employees who claimed discrimination.
Wal-Mart treats workers with disabilities unfairly. In 2001, Wal-Mart had to settle thirteen lawsuits which all alleged discrimination against those with disabilities.
Wal-Mart breaks the law to keep unions out. The National Labor Relations Board has issued 60 complaints against Wal-Mart since 1995 for illegal retaliation including firings, unlawful surveillance, threats and intimidation.
Wal-Mart pays poverty wages. The average Wal-Mart worker makes about one thousand dollars less than the federal poverty guideline.
And a majority of Wal-Mart workers have lousy benefits. Tens of thousands of Wal-Mart workers rely on welfare for their health insurance, which leaves taxpayers picking up the cost while Wal-Mart’s three billion dollars in annual profits are protected.
Taken all together, this paints an ugly picture of a corporate behemoth that increasingly molds our economy, and our world, to suit its needs. But some communities have decided to take action beyond the courts.
Earlier this month, in a stunning development, with a vote strong enough to override a veto by their Governor, the Maryland state legislature required Wal-Mart to spend eight per cent of payroll to cover their workers’ health care, or else contribute the difference to the state’s Medicaid fund. Bills along these same lines are now pending in thirty-one other state legislatures. And in Vermont, where the push for universal health care is strong, Wal-Mart should be made to pay its fair share as part of a system that covers everyone.
Wal-Mart is big enough to force itself on us. But it should be restrained from forcing its values on us. The fact is that Wal-Mart is a low-road employer. It gives us low prices, yes, but also low wages, low benefits, low regard for the environment and low respect for the diverse and homegrown economy we value in Vermont. Some communities and some states are trying to force Wal-Mart onto the high road. We should too.