Opinion Columns & Blogs

Tumwater community about to assess whether Wal-Mart is a boon or bust

I couldn’t let pass next week’s grand opening of the community’s new WalMart without acknowledging the corporate leaders who placed it directly across from the historic graveyards on Littlerock Road in Tumwater.

Above all, thank you Wal-Mart for not inflicting a mega-complex on my neighborhood north of Olympia – as yet, anyway. And thank you for the reminder, albeit unintended, to renew my lapsed membership in Costco.

Hallowed ground has seldom stood in the way of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail chain. At its construction site not far from the pyramids and spiritual center of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, Mexico, workers evidently unearthed and hauled away some priceless, buried artifacts to the dump. Neither is Wal-Mart likely to lend financial support for a hedge or green barrier out of respect for the Tumwater burial grounds of the Oregon Trail pioneers.

If I had to list my top 20 issues with Wal-Mart, however, encroaching on historic landmarks wouldn’t even rank. The company pays its “associates” notoriously low wages and benefits, snuffs out competition, relies on foreign sweat shops, and suppresses any attempts by workers to assert their rights.

The latest U.S. Supreme Court decision has Wal-Mart in damage-control mode with smiley-faced employees taking to the airwaves with testimonies about the company’s wonderful opportunities. Women and minorities, of course, are prominently featured.

Without addressing whether Wal-Mart discriminated against women in wages and promotions, the court ruled 5-4 last month there were potentially too many affected women to allow the lawsuit, Dukes vs. Wal-Mart, to go forward as a class action. In other words, the principle of too big to fail has now been extended to include too-big-to-enforce anti-discrimination laws.

According to the plaintiffs, 1.6 million current and formerly employed women lagged behind men in pay and promotions at Wal-Mart, earning on average 5 percent to 15 percent less and waiting 4.38 years from date of hire for promotion to the next level as compared with 2.86 years for men.

When Kathleen MacDonald, a clerk in Aiken, S.C., asked her supervisor why her male co-workers were paid more, she was told, “God made Adam first.”

Why patronize Costco instead? It’s about respect for working people.

The country’s largest membership warehouse club chain, Costco Wholesale Corp., was co-founded in 1983 in Seattle by CEO Jim Sinegal on the premise that shareholders benefit when employes operate in a positive work environment and customers are satisfied.

As of March 2011, nonsupervisory wages in the United States ranged from $11 to $21 per hour and 85 percent of Costco’s workers had health insurance, compared with fewer than 50 percent at Wal-Mart. Costco also pays a significantly higher share of employe premiums.

Granted, Costco gets points off for sponsoring the latest initiative campaign to take the state out of the liquor business. With the citizens of our state facing Draconian cutbacks in education, safety nets and health care, the last thing we need is for that source of revenue to dry up.

Wage data is harder to obtain from Wal-Mart, which offers the excuse that rates vary by location.

According to a study released in April by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, however, Wal-Mart’s workers in the U.S. are paid 12 percent less than the retail sector as a whole and 14 percent less than workers in large retail. About one in five earns $9 per hour or less.

Far from adding jobs, by some estimates communities lose 1.3 jobs for each one created at Wal-Mart.

If groceries cost less at Wal-Mart – and they often do – it’s mainly because working people are being shafted.

David Rupel is a retired systems consultant with DSHS. A member of The Olympia’s Board of Contributors, he can be reached at Davidr1949@yahoo.com.