Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil

The Thinker by Rodin

Can a company be evil? I think so. Wal-Mart is an evil company.

I have decided I will have nothing to do with Wal-Mart. Granted I was not exactly one of their major customers. I bought some paint there once, only because it got a Consumer Reports recommendation. And I purchased a set of prescription glasses there a few years back. I might have bought a couple other things over the years but that’s about it. That’s all it’s going to be unless Wal-Mart reforms its ways. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. See, first Wal-Mart has to get a conscience. It has none. Tolkien’s evil Lord Sauron looks good in comparison.

Admittedly I find its stores to be incredibly easy to hate. I hate the phony Wal-Mart greeter at the door. I hate the narrow aisles with products stuffed to the ceilings. I hate not being able to find anything quickly in the store. I hate the hugeness of the place. I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

I don’t hate its employees either because I was like them once. For about two years in my early 20s I worked as a wage slave for the now defunct Montgomery Ward corporation. It had a lot of the same attributes of Wal-Mart, but it just wasn’t as successful. What can I say: the economy was bad in 1979, even worse than it was today. I was a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree and no place to use it. I worked at Wards to survive. I survived most of the time at or a little above the minimum wage (then in the $3-$4 an hour range). I did earn a commission of sorts for every lawn and garden sale I made, but all of it was against a draw. Lots of times I couldn’t earn my draw (i.e. earn the minimum wage based on my sales). (This wasn’t from lack of effort, just lack of customers.) I still got the minimum wage in these cases, but they were forever threatening to fire me and hire someone else if I couldn’t “earn” my draw.

Surviving was tough. I was fortunate to be young and in good health. Wards did offer some sort of health insurance plan but I couldn’t begin to afford it. Imagine trying to live on $4 an hour. If you can find a place to flop and put food in your mouth you are doing okay at those wages, even in 1979. I couldn’t afford a car — the one I brought from Florida gave out and I had no money to fix it. Purchase health insurance on my salary? The idea was laughable. The same is true with current Wal-Mart workers, which, like Wards, does actually offer something they call “health insurance”. Those of us who have real health insurance wouldn’t recognize it. The Wal-Mart basic health insurance plan costs $10 a week but is limited to paying out no more than $1000 a year in benefits! In my family we spend three or four times that a year on prescription drugs alone! Wal-Mart health insurance is, in short, mostly a waste of money, which is probably why so few Wal-Mart employees bother to get it in the first place.

McDonalds (another evil corporation) calls its jobs “opportunities”. I doubt Wal-Mart workers really believe their dead end jobs are opportunities. Here in Northern Virginia the local Wal-Mart seems to hire a lot of people who must have just recently gotten their green cards. Most don’t appear to be American citizens. I see lots of people who appear to be part time workers of Indian or Pakistani descent. When I was working for Wards I could afford (barely) to share a cheap apartment with another guy. I doubt they can manage even this. I imagine their Wal-Mart job is probably a second, third or fourth job and whatever miserly income they make helps support an extended family living in densities greater than their local housing officials would approve.

Scrooge lives folks, but he is now incorporated and he runs Wal-Mart. This Scrooge though squeezes everyone: suppliers and employees alike. He is ruthless in increasing profits and driving the competition out of business. If that means doubling imports from China and putting Americans out of work, it’s not a problem. This Scrooge is not immoral; he is amoral. He simply doesn’t care if his actions put Americans out of work, or results in depressed wages across the country. He doesn’t care if his store is tended to by legions of Bob Crachits. Scrooge begrudged giving Crachit Christmas Day off, but at least he did it out of some feeling of shame. Wal-Mart employees, as has been amply documented in the media, often are forced to book unpaid overtime. Its cleaning contractors hire illegal aliens at rates below the minimum wage that at least in some cases never get a day off. Scrooge grins and looks the other ways. The stockholders are pleased, as long as it doesn’t go public. Oops.

People like me with consciences need to know which companies treat their employees fairly and provide them with decent benefits. We need to know so we can patronize these companies. I wish there were more people like me. But Republicanism apparently has turned us into an amoral nation. We simply don’t give a damn about Wal-Mart workers and all the companies like Wal-Mart. All we care about is low prices and reckless consumerism. We don’t care if these people get sick. We can’t even see the connection when they show up at emergency rooms and their costs are passed on to us in the form of higher premiums. Skeptical? Believe it! Health insurance costs don’t go up twenty to thirty percent a year for years on end solely because new miracle drugs come on the market. They go up also because Wal-Mart workers and workers like them can’t get preventive medicine and instead get “free” but transitory treatment at our public emergency rooms at your expense.

I won’t patronize companies like Wal-Mart anymore. We need to grade corporations on how well they treat their employees and their business partners. They need score cards that are released with their quarterly balance sheets. We need to know who these corporate Scrooges are. We need to change our laws to ensure the lowest paid workers in this country are still paid decently and can actually survive on their wages. Until then those of us with consciences must just say no and refuse to patronize these places. Wal-Mart is the easy target. But if we can get Wal-Mart to cave in, the rest might too. Then perhaps there will be fewer stories in the paper like this one.

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