August 29, 2011
By Richard J. Whalen, International Vice President & Director, UFCW Region 1
A few years ago, Walmart tried to establish a presence in New York City. The company faced intense opposition from residents and elected officials and eventually said the Big Apple just wasn’t worth it.
Now Walmart is reconsidering the five boroughs. Fueling this change of heart is desperation: Walmart’s steadily declining U.S. sales and stock prices have rattled its top executives, and analysts agree that Walmart needs to urbanize its business model. After saturating non-urban areas in the U.S., Walmart has come to view New York City as crucial for its growth. It feels financial pressure to open stores here.
That raises the stakes considerably. So Walmart is spending millions on slick ads and glossy mailers geared toward local residents and campaigning like its life depended on convincing every New Yorker.
It is throwing around buzzwords like sustainability as part of the effort to rebrand itself. Yet Walmart is the same harmful and destructive company it’s always been. Working people here still have as much to fear — and as much to lose — from Walmart as they did before. A few organic apples won’t change that.
Walmart wants New Yorkers to focus on its new feel-good image, and forget about the company’s long history of busting unions and driving down wages, benefits and other core job standards in the retail sector. The reality, though, is that working people will be weakened if Walmart comes to New York City.
Walmart recently advertised a position of Director of Labor Relations, which required that candidates “support continued union-free workplaces” and “assess vulnerability to union messaging in the market.” This is the same company that, according to Human Rights Watch, creates “a climate of fear” among workers to prevent them from trying to improve the quality of their jobs and exercise a stronger voice.
The average wage for a Walmart sales associate is $8.81 an hour, or $15,576 a year working Walmart’s full-time hours — just slightly above the federal minimum wage, and far below the poverty level for a family of three or more. Walmart relies heavily on a computerized scheduling system that results in many part-time and flexible workers, eroding the number of stable, full-time jobs and the hours, pay, and benefits that come with them. Many associates earn so little they rely on public health insurance, such as Medicaid, or live with no insurance at all. Taxpayers often pick up the bill for Walmart’s failure to provide decent benefits.
The Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley found that if Walmart just raised its wages to $12 an hour it would increase costs for consumers by a mere one percent. Walmart can afford to pay its workers a better wage and set a better model for the industry, but instead it lowers the bar and makes it harder for other retail companies to give workers a fair deal.
Walmart is larger and more powerful than all its competitors combined. It sets the model for the retail industry, and that means its dominance as an anti-union, low-wage company is felt by workers at many other companies. Nationally, Walmart is responsible for reducing the earning of retail employees.