Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer. It is also the largest corporation and private employer in the United States. Wal-Mart employs 1.5 million workers worldwide and over 1.1 million here in America. Because of its marketplace dominance, Wal-Mart sets the standard for wages and labor practices throughout the entire retail industry in this country. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart cares more about profits than people, and their policies reveal their anti-worker and anti-woman positions.
In 1970, the country’s largest employer was General Motors, with 350,000 workers. Overwhelmingly unionized, workers earned $17.50 an hour plus health, pension and vacation benefits with routine cost-of-living increases.
Today, the country’s largest employer is Wal-Mart. Employees earn an average hourly wage of $8.00, have no defined benefit pension and have inadequate health insurance that the majority of workers cannot afford. For instance, Wal-Mart workers in California depend upon state taxpayers for approximately $32 million in health-related services each year because Wal-Mart’s plan is too expensive.
Due to the success of Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union policies, not a single Wal-Mart worker belongs to a labor union. In February 2005, the company chose to close a store in Jonquiere, Quebec rather than allow its employees to join a union. In April 2005, a former Wal-Mart board member, Thomas M. Coughlin, alleged in an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal that he operated an illegal anti-union slush fund.
Wal-Mart associates don’t earn enough to support a family. The median family budget in the United States for a two-person family (one parent and one child) in 1999 was $23,705, well above the average associate’s annual wages of $13,861. Without a collective voice, Wal-Mart employees are unable to stand up for their rights and demand better conditions.
Wal-Mart products come from nearly 50 countries around the globe. The company claims that it does not permit sweatshop conditions, but Wal-Mart forbids independent, unannounced inspections of its contractors’ facilities in countries such as China. KLD & Co.’s Domini 400 Social Index, which provides research for institutional investors, does not list Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart hasn’t “done enough to ensure that its vendors meet ‘adequate labor and human rights standards.'” The sweatshop conditions are not just abroad. The Maine Department of Labor ordered Wal-Mart to pay the largest fine in state history for violating child labor laws; the department found over 1,400 child labor law infractions in the state.
On June 19, 2001, current and former female Wal-Mart employees filed a massive, nationwide sex discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (Case No. C 01-2252 MJJ). The suit has received class action status, making it the largest class action lawsuit ever, with over 1.6 million participants. The suit charges that Wal-Mart discriminates against its female employees in promotions, compensation and job assignments.
Wal-Mart employs fewer women in management now than its competitors did in 1975. Today, only 33 percent of managers at Wal-Mart today are women, while they hold 56.6 percent of management positions at competitor corporations.
Sixty-five percent of Wal-Mart’s hourly workers are women, but they earn 37 cents an hour less than their male counterparts for the same work. Male management trainees make an average of $23,175 a year, compared with $22,371 for female trainees. The average male senior vice-president at Wal-Mart makes $419,435 a year, while the four female senior vice-presidents earn an average of $279,772. Wal-Mart’s gender inequality cannot be the model used by other employers in the United States.
Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world and the fifth-largest pharmacy chain in the U.S. It owns approximately 2,500 pharmacies. Wal-Mart decided to ban the only FDA-approved emergency contraceptive, Plan B. When taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse (or of a contraceptive failure), emergency contraception reduces the chances of the woman getting pregnant by 75 percent. Wal-Mart is the only major pharmacy to choose not to carry emergency contraception. All the other major drug store chains carry emergency contraceptives. A pharmacist’s job is to dispense medicine, not morality.
In early August, representatives from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions called for a boycott of Wal-Mart for any “back-to-school shopping,” explaining how state budgets and American public schools suffer because of Wal-Mart’s practices. The House Committee on Education and Workforce estimates that a Wal-Mart employee may cost federal taxpayers around $2,103 per year in the form of federal public assistance programs due to Wal-Mart’s low wages. That amounts to a total of $2.7 billion a year. The amount consumers might save shopping at Wal-Mart instead becomes the burden placed on states to provide social welfare programs to Wal-Mart employees. As a result, taxpayers end up paying the costs of Wal-Mart’s discriminatory policies.
Wal-Mart has built an international retail empire by denying its workers a living wage, adequate health benefits and equal opportunities to advance. It is time that we stand up and demand that Wal-Mart change its discriminatory practices. To learn more how you can be involved in demanding justice for Wal-Mart employees, stop by the Wal-Mart Awareness Project’s table at the Campus Organizations Fair on Sept. 5 or email [email protected].
Brown can be reached at