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April 14, 2005

Wal-Mart: American FeudalismTM

Genevieve LaBahn

      For most of us, being a college student means buying supplies for dorm life at absolutely the cheapest price possible. Think of all the things you bought as an innocent freshman: laundry supplies, toiletries, a printer, snacks, maybe a microwave or mini-fridge, bedding, and so on. Many college students, here at Boston College and everywhere across America, went to the retail behemoth Wal-Mart to meet their back-to-school demands. And why not? It's cheap and convenient; and who can resist that adorable little smiley face that greets you as you walk in?

      The reality is that Wal-Mart—thanks to a materialistic culture and unchecked, rampant capitalism—has become a corporation that is rapidly reshaping the economic playing field, so much that even its own full-time employees are living in poverty and unable to afford healthcare, rent, and food. This is wrong. Many corporations are inherently unfair to workers, creating sexist and anti-union work environments; but Wal-Mart is something entirely different. Thanks to Wal-Mart, it is as if feudalism is creeping into America.

      Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world, selling in three months what the second largest retailer, Home Depot, sells in an entire year. In the fiscal year for 2003, Wal-Mart had sales of $244.5 billion. But the most important numbers are these: Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer, with well over one million employees, and is the largest employer in 25 states. Wal-Mart employees working "full-time" (which Wal-Mart defines as 34, not 40, hours per week) earn an average $9.53/hr (translating roughly to $17,000/yr), which is far below the Economic Policy Institute's Basic Family Budget of $23,000/yr. Although Wal-Mart's webpage claims wages are higher in urban locations (and this is true), this does not compensate for the increased cost of living that comes with living in an urban environment.

      And if you're a woman? Most likely you earn even less. Wal-Mart has an ugly history of sexism, which is shocking for a company in which women make up nearly 70% of all hourly employees. But managers? Only 33% of managers are women. And store managers? Just 15%. Ladies, your extra x-chromosome will cost you: female managers earn 5-15% less than their male counterparts. There's now a class action lawsuit, the largest in US history, against Wal-Mart for gender discrimination in promotion and pay. Add to this the history of Wal-Mart managers making employees work off the clock, without overtime or any wages. Serfdom, anyone?

      However, the real outrage is more subtle than just low wages. Wal-Mart's employees—in addition to living at or below federal poverty levels—are also without health insurance, thanks in large part to Wal-Mart's anti-union history. Wal-Mart is, hands down, the most vehemently anti-union corporation under the sun. Unionized retail positions see 80% of employees covered by a company health plan, while the federal average is 67%. Yet at Wal-Mart, only an embarrassing 47% are covered by health insurance. What about the 53% of the Wal-Mart employees who cannot afford or are ineligible for their company's plan? Either they get support from the state—driving health insurance up for the rest of us—or they go without insurance. Sadly, the latter is becoming increasingly common. Without the right to unionize, Wal-Mart employees will be, quite literally, at the mercy of the corporation.

      Wal-Mart practices a textbook definition of worker exploitation. Full-time employees, despite working a full-time position, are increasingly living in poverty, without health care and without the right to unionize to try to get these conditions alleviated. These are people who are working hard, who are trying to earn a living. Throw in the fact that many Wal-Mart employees are supporting their families and you have the conditions for a working class of Americans that are surviving paycheck to paycheck. They are floating at the poverty level, without insurance, without union representation, without a voice. No one can accuse these people of being lazy; working full-time and still not being able to make ends meet is simply unacceptable in America.

      So what can be done about this situation? Simple. Don't shop at Wal-Mart. Tell your roommates, your friends, your relatives to stop shopping at Wal-Mart until it pays its workers a living wage and provides affordable health care. Consider Target as an alternative. But above all else: don't support a system that is truly inhumane to workers.

Front Page (April 14, 2005)

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