Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wally world

My series on retailers begins with the most villainized: Walmart! Walmart is the largest retailer in the world, operating nearly 9,000 stores worldwide (source). Why has Walmart become so villainized? Many many reasons which is why I'm splitting the information into two separate posts. Today we'll talk about Walmart's unethical practices within the United States.

Walmart, like many large corporations, frowns upon unions. All employees must sign away their rights to join a union. What does this mean? Should you be mistreated, poorly paid, and ignored, who do you turn to? Walmart has been slammed with numerous lawsuits. Just to name a few: gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, and racial discrimination. What Walmart, and many large corporations, know is that should these unhappy employees become organized (i.e. unionize), they become a force to be reckoned with. They would then have to increase wages and engage in fair practices and who wants that, right? Walmart is notorious for their union busting tactics. If they catch wind of anything they will exert pressure on individuals to prevent them from organizing.

What kind of pressure? It all begins when the Labor Relations teams come into the stores, holding meetings where they berate unions, presenting only one side of the issue. Team members leave scared and confused about unions, only having heard one opinion. Union activists are banned from stores so they never do get to hear the benefits of unionizing.

Other underhanded tactics include management eavesdropping on employees, threatening employees with pay cuts, benefit loss, or even job loss should they organize. According to Human Rights Watch,

"Wal-Mart’s relentless anti-union drumbeat creates a climate of fear at its US stores. Many workers are convinced that they will suffer dire consequences if they form a union, in part because they do not hear pro-union views. Many are also afraid that if they defy their powerful employer by organizing, they could face retaliation, even firing. Human Rights Watch found that Wal-Mart heightens this fear with its arsenal of unlawful anti-union tactics. Wal-Mart has sent managers to eavesdrop on employees. According to former workers and managers at one store, it has even ordered the repositioning of surveillance cameras to monitor union supporters. It has told workers they will lose benefits if they organize. The company has discriminatorily banned talk about unions and prohibited union flyer distribution, while allowing discussion of other issues and circulation of non-union materials. It has disciplined union supporters for policy violations that it has let slide for union opponents. And it has illegally fired workers for their union activity." Source
Why is this so important? It's important because Walmart has taken away the voice of their employees. They cannot get together and raise concern over how they're treated. Walmart loves to tout that they create tons of jobs in the United States. While they are, no doubt, a large employer, many of their employees are kept just under the requirements for benefits. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UCFW), only 52% of Walmart's workforce has insurance and for those that do, it is extremely costly. Add to that the low amount they are paid in the first place and you have a significant number of their workforce who is on welfare. According to UCFW, Walmart employees are utilizing billions of dollars in benefits a year to subsidize health care that they are not receiving from Walmart. That's money out of the taxpayers' pockets.

Yes we can all argue that the people that are working at Walmart have a choice and if they pursued a better education then they wouldn't be working at Walmart. What about the small towns where Walmart is the largest employer? What about those people who can't go to college either because of financial concerns or they're just not cut out for it? Are we willing to say that these people 'deserve' to be treated this way? Maybe those are harsh words but is that not what we're indirectly saying when we don't stand up for them? Should they not, at the very least, have the right to stand up and be heard?

So what can we do? As I've said before (and sure I'll say again many many times) our money is the most powerful tool we hold. Every time we buy something, we are casting a vote. If you choose to stop shopping at Walmart, you're letting them know that this behavior is not ok.

Let's go one step further. Business is business. While Walmart has made steps as of late to remedy some of their issues, they will not willingly become as ethical as you or I would like. The only way they will do that is if they have to, i.e. laws. There are many movements active right now regarding changing labor laws so that corporations cannot do all the things Walmart is accused of. While I believe in the goodness of people, business is all about the bottom line so we shouldn't expect Walmart (or any other business) to change because they want to 'be good'; we have to force change or it won't happen.




Human Rights Watch

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