MALVEAUX: Wal-Mart Workers Shouldn't Have to Donate Food to Co-Workers

Julianne Malveaux | 12/4/2013, 3 p.m.
For the past year, an organization called OUR Walmart has protested, raised questions and asked their employer, one of the ...
Courtesy of forrespect.org

For the past year, an organization called OUR Walmart has protested, raised questions and asked their employer, one of the nation’s largest companies, to treat them fairly. They have asked for better wages, more full-time hours, and for the opportunity to earn benefits.

Wal-Mart has responded with well-timed publicity moves. They will allow same sex couples health insurance and other benefits, but only if someone is working full time (at least a third of Wal-Mart workers are employed part time). There were headlines about the same-sex marriage benefit, but none about the low wages that many receive, and the hurdles they must clear to get the health care benefit.

The average Wal-Mart worker earns $8.81 an hour; but too many earn the minimum wage ($7.25 cent an hour), even as they work part time. According to Wal-Mart’s CEO. at least half of its workers earn less than $25,000 a year, which isn’t enough to live on in a city with living costs as high as those in Washington, D.C. Yet, Wal-Mart threatened to withdraw from agreements they had with the District of Columbia when the City Council said they would require a $12.50 minimum wage from “big box” stores.

With the District caught between a rock and a hard place – no jobs or low-paying jobs – they blinked and subscribed to the notion that any job is better than no job. The District will end up subsidizing those workers who can’t make it with their Wal-Mart pay. They’ll be the ones lining up for food stamps, subsidized housing, and other income-enhancing programs.

No wonder Wal-Mart wants to help workers during this holiday season. In Canton, Ohio, and in other Wal-Mart stores, managers are asking workers to donate food so that their coworkers may have a pleasant Thanksgiving. If Wal-Mart paid associates enough, workers would not have to transfer food and opportunities to their colleagues. Indeed, since most Wal-Mart stores have a food section, why wouldn’t the company offer their lowest paid workers a gift certificate for $100 or so? Or, why not just pay workers so they don’t need to seek holiday supplements during the holidays. Wal-Mart doesn’t want to pay people what they are worth, just what they can get away with.

Wal-Mart chooses to suppress wages, so they have also made a choice to encourage some workers to provide token assistance for their coworkers who are not well paid. Wal-Mart has put the onus of fair pay on workers helping one another, not the company helping its workers. While many Wal-Mart employees will be concerned enough abut their colleagues to contribute, they must also ask why a food drive is necessary. In asking that question, they might also ask what impact food stamp cuts will have on their colleagues.

There is nothing magic about the $12.50 an hour wage. Some jurisdictions will push their minimum wage to $11 an hour and others will ask for more. Many retail workers say that a $15 an hour wage is the least that they can survive on. A household headed by two part-time Wal-Mart workers qualifies for a number of federal programs. If Wal-Mart paid each of its workers $12.50 an hour, the pay increase would not substantially reduce profit. Indeed, the profit stream might increase if employers are more productive, less likely to seek new jobs, and more likely to exercise pride in their work.