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February 24, 2005

Wal-Mart on the Run from Its Record

Wal-Mart used children for hazardous jobs in its U.S. stores according to a U.S. Labor Department investigation as reported in the New York Times on February 12, 2005. Wal-Mart is being sued for sexual harassment in Florida by the federal government as reported in the Bradenton Herald on February 18, 2005. Wal-Mart was cited in Alabama for having the most employees on taxpayer-funded Medicaid health program as reported in the Associated Press on February 22, 2005. Wal-Mart is the target of a Georgia legislative initiative on companies with large number of employees receiving taxpayer-funded health care after it was revealed the retail giant ranked number one for employees on the government health program as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on February 23, 2005.

In a ten-day period, Wal-Mart compiled a virtually unmatched public record of abusive, illegal and irresponsible conduct involving women, children and taxpayers. These most recent reports come on top of Wal-Mart already facing the largest sex discrimination lawsuit in history, court convictions for forcing employees to work without pay, and government complaints for the illegal firing and intimidation of workers for exercising workplace rights. In Canada, Wal-Mart is closing a store and taking away the livelihoods of almost 200 workers rather than comply with the law providing a fair and impartial process to reach a contract with workers.

So what does Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott do?  He delivers a speech attacking the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

In his speech delivered in Los Angeles yesterday, Scott glibly ignored the company’s very public record of shameful conduct; blamed the UFCW and other critics (the “guppies” according an earlier Scott pronouncement) for his problems; and, created an alternative reality where low wages, unaffordable benefits, the massive export of U.S. jobs to overseas sweatshops, the suppression of worker rights and taxpayer subsidies for the giant retailer have somehow made the world a better place.

The Scott speech continues a public relations offensive launched several weeks ago to prop up the company’s sagging image, pump up stagnate stock prices, and sidestep holiday season reports that competitors from Sears to Best Buy offered lower prices. The speech contains the same willful distortions and Orwellian double-talk as the company’s ad campaign. Repeating a lie does not make it true.

Scott brags, as did the ads, about the number of full-time employees– except full time in Wal-Mart speak is about 30 hours a week, not 40 hours as in the rest of reality. Scott proudly proclaims that Wal-Mart’s average wages are about twice the minimum wage. He ignores that Wal-Mart uses its enormous political clout– the largest political giver in 2004– to keep the minimum wage in real terms at its lowest level in decades.  Even at the supposed Wal-Mart average wage, a family with a Wal-Mart income is still left scraping the poverty line. Scott cites Wal-Mart health insurance as a positive, but fails to mention that 700,000 Wal-Mart associates do not have the company’s health insurance, and that those who do, pay more on average than employees of other major companies.

In instance after instance, Scott contorts the facts to serve his own purposes. He cites the lack of opposition to his company in communities across California, and declares opposition to Wal-Mart is limited to urbanized areas– except the overwhelming majority of Californians live in those urbanized areas. He talks about company tax payments, but doesn’t mention the tax costs the retailer imposes on states and communities with its low wages and lack of affordable health benefits.

Despite Scott’s protestations, Wal-Mart is not just a simple retailer. Wal-Mart is the largest single economic force in history. It is the largest private employer in the country, and the largest corporation in the world. Walton family members comprise five of the ten richest people in the world. About one percent of the wealth of just one of the Walton richest five would provide affordable health insurance for all Wal-Mart workers in the U.S.  Wal-Mart is about high profits, not low prices.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has 1.4 million members working in neighborhood supermarkets, retail stores, meat packing and food processing plants. UFCW retail members work for major retailers such as Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons.