By Marie Cocco
Merry Wal-Mart, America.
It is going to be a Wal-Mart Christmas. This is what all the facts and figures tell us, and what Wall Street analysts tell us after they’ve pored over the monthly retail sales reports, each bleaker than the last. In their odd half-emptiness, this is what the shopping-center parking lots tell us, too.
It is definitely not going to be a General Motors Christmas.
This doesn’t depend on whether Congress and the Bush administration manage to rush cash into the coffers of GM and other Detroit automakers. It is not going to be a General Motors Christmas because we long ago stopped being a General Motors country.
What were we like then?
Well, we were a country in which, if you were working class, you were not feeling betrayed and you didn’t necessarily feel inferior to, say, the people who sold stock on Wall Street. They could only sell stock if you made a product that backed up that stock. This was nothing like those deals in which nobody can tell what’s exchanged except paper and false promises.
Your employer recognized your skills and experience with a healthy, middle-class paycheck. You knew your family’s health was protected by good insurance, that your spouse could rely on a decent pension after you were gone and that your children might win a company scholarship to attend college—or get a job at the plant, an option in which there was no shame.
Wages for production workers in the Big Three automakers averaged $67,480 in 2007, according to the Center for Automotive Research. The companies provide health insurance, directly or indirectly, for 2 million employees, dependents, retirees and employees of some suppliers.
Some people look at that number—$67,480—and see an outrageous union giveaway, the supposedly definitive reason that taxpayers should not bail out Detroit. These same people do not necessarily complain about the bad business decisions auto executives made. Nor do they seem to link the current credit crisis—inextricably connected to the unspeakable greed among the top guns of Wall Street—as a direct cause of the industry’s current woes. It is.
But just until now, the reasoning went, these executives took risks and that’s what makes America work!
Now America is not working very well and so we are going to have a Wal-Mart Christmas.
The giant discounter is the only store where hard-squeezed consumers can afford to buy anything, and so it has kept posting sales gains amid the retail bloodbath. “This is the kind of environment that Sam Walton built this company for,” Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. told analysts recently.
He should know. Because Wal-Mart has done so much to create this environment.
Long before the stock market meltdown, the foreclosure crisis, the credit crunch and everything else in the cascade of bad economic news that swamps us, there was the income crisis. And the health insurance crisis. And the crisis in whether employers follow the labor laws, or routinely break them.
Here is what Wal-Mart’s 2008 annual report says: The company is a defendant in “numerous cases” for alleged violations of wage and hour laws. Generally, they involve employees who say they were forced to work “off the clock,” who were denied meal and rest breaks, or who claim the company simply found other ways not to pay them for hours they’d worked.
Wal-Mart also is ensnared in the largest gender-discrimination lawsuit ever, with women claiming they were paid less and denied promotions and transfers that men received. It also faces environmental charges from federal and state prosecutors who say Wal-Mart has flouted hazardous waste disposal and other laws.
In June, the National Labor Relations Board found that Wal-Mart illegally fired an employee for union organizing, and determined that the company had illegally threatened employees with a loss of merit pay during a unionization drive.
The company that is now the biggest private-sector employer says the average hourly wage of its workers is $10.86. Wal-Mart has said it considers a 34-hour week as full time, though it declined to respond to my questions about this and other employment issues. Assuming the full-time week is 34 hours, a full-time Wal-Mart “associate” averages $19,200 a year. That’s about $2,000 below the 2008 federal poverty level for a family of four.
So, it is going to be a Wal-Mart Christmas. Because we have become a Wal-Mart country, and we are all laid low.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group
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