Rebekah Peeples Massengill, author of “Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century,” teaches writing and sociology at Princeton University.
Wal-Mart has attracted controversy for decades: Its supporters laud its low prices and market efficiencies, while its opponents charge that the company exploits workers, destroys local economies and pollutes the environment. Now, despite warnings from the retailer that it would reconsider its plans to open three stores in Washington, the D.C. Council has passed a living-wage bill that would require Wal-Mart to pay its workers here at least $12.50 per hour. Let’s examine a few of these impressions about the world’s largest retailer.
1. Only lower-income people shop at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart sells lots of cheap stuff, so it’s no surprise that low- and middle-income shoppers are the store’s most regular customers. However, wealthier people are among the more than 60 percent of Americans who shop at Wal-Mart each month. A 2005 Pew Research Center survey found that more than three-quarters of respondents from households earning more than $75,000 a year thought Wal-Mart was a good place to shop, and nearly 80 percent of them had shopped at Wal-Mart in the previous year. Of customers in this income group, 38 percent described themselves as regular Wal-Mart shoppers.
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2. Critics just want to unionize Wal-Mart workers.
Most of the efforts to improve working conditions and compensation at Wal-Mart are led by union-funded groups that have been branded as allies of Big Labor seeking only to line their pockets with more union dues. But practically, none of these efforts has focused on formally unionizing Wal-Mart’s unorganized domestic workforce.
Instead, as early as 2005, groups such as Walmart Watch and Wake Up Walmart waged a largely successful campaign focusing not on Wal-Mart workers’ union status but on their compensation and benefits. A year after Walmart Watch was founded, the retail giant lowered premiums on its health insurance policies and allowed part-time workers to obtain medical coverage for their children. The newer group Our Walmart has coordinated recent worker strikes in a similar attempt to put pressure on the retailer in the court of public opinion, but still explicitly says that it does not intend to represent Wal-Mart workers in formal negotiations with their employer.
3. Wal-Mart is great for low-income Americans.
Low-income shoppers need low prices because the manufacturing jobs with living wages that might have sustained them in earlier generations have been moved to sweatshops overseas, leaving poorly paid service jobs in their wake. Wal-Mart’s low-income customers thus have more in common with foreign workers than they may realize: Both are caught in a global economy that has discounted their labor in the name of cheap consumption.
Prioritizing consumption (what we pay for goods) over production (what workers earn for making goods) means that even low-income families whose economic futures have been jeopardized by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs can see Wal-Mart as a savior, not a villain. Yet the retail giant’s genius lies in camouflaging its exploitation in terms that frame its relentless cost-cutting as a kind of benevolence. For example, the company in 2006 declared itself “a lifeline” for millions of Americans facing harsh and uncertain economic times, adding that “perhaps more than any single company in America, Walmart is providing the opportunity for a better life for poor and working families.” Still, even if Wal-Mart’s low prices help low-income Americans make ends meet at the cash register, the low wages offered by Wal-Mart (and other comparable retail service jobs) do little to help low-income families shoulder the burden of other rising costs, such as health care and housing.