Amazon raises wages to $15/hour

The Thinker by Rodin

The news has been pretty miserable recently. But yesterday brought an event that truly made me cheer out loud and actually made me teary. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth grows by $250 million every day, decided to pay his workers at least $15/hour. Starting November 1, all Amazon employees, including the part time and temporary ones, will be paid a minimum of $15/hour. This resulted in something you would not expect: Amazon employees cheering their employer (see video).

This should make everyone cheer, except perhaps Amazon stockholders. This wage increase may reduce Amazon’s profits, and thus its stock value. More than likely though Amazon stockholders will grow to understand that this move makes business sense and will help ensure Amazon’s long-term profitability.

Early in the auto industry’s years, Henry Ford realized that if he paid his autoworkers generously they would buy his cars. If like many Amazon employees you now make ends meet (if you can) with second and third jobs, plus food stamps and Medicaid (in states where Medicaid is an option), receiving $15/hour means a whole lot more money in your pocket. Given that you can buy almost anything on amazon.com, a lot of that extra pocket money should go back into Amazon’s coffers.

If you are a taxpayer, you should be thrilled that Amazon workers shouldn’t need government assistance to survive anymore. The U.S. government doles out huge amounts of money in the form of corporate welfare, which in 2012 cost taxpayers about $100B a year. The primary beneficiaries of corporate welfare (unsurprisingly) are large corporations, which can afford to lobby for theses benefits. Because the government subsidizes their costs, this puts small businesses at a disadvantage. So when companies like Amazon wean themselves off of indirect corporate welfare (in the form of food stamps and Medicaid costs borne by taxpayers for their low wages), this competitive advantage largely disappears while also reducing federal and state spending.

Small businesses presumably won’t be happy if they have to increase their wages to compete with higher wages at places like Amazon. They are under no obligation to do so. But workers who can opt for higher wage employers like Amazon will try to get jobs there instead. Higher wages allow Amazon to pick from a better talent pool and retain workers. Ultimately small businesses have to either become more efficient (like Amazon) or pay their employees a living wage too. This may result in higher costs, but higher costs are easier to handle if there are consumers with more money to spend. And that’s another benefit of these actions: putting more money into circulation, so the economy does better overall.

Other large employers are raising wages too. Target is on track to raise its minimum wage to $15/hour by 2020. Given that Amazon will offer more sooner, they might want to match Amazon’s wage rate sooner too. Early this year Walmart raised its minimum wage to $11/hour. They may now face similar pressure. More progressive companies were there way before Amazon. Costco pays its employees a starting salary of $20/hour.

In the case of Amazon, it looks like shame was an effective strategy. Just last month, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, which would have levied a tax against large employers equal to the public benefits their employees receive. In a Republican congress, the act had no chance of passage. But just by introducing it and making noise about it, it convinced Jeff Bezos to raise wages. In fact, Bezos thanked Bernie Sanders. Bezos is now on record as a supporter of a living wage and hopes Amazon’s actions spur other employers to do the same.

The great thing is that it probably will. Amazon’s action feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back. The $15/hour minimum wage proposal is very popular with the public. Back in 2016, 53% of Americans supported raising the minimum wage, and 48% of Americans supported a $15/hour minimum wage. Those numbers are likely higher now. By setting a new floor of $15/hour, it also encourages employers to raise wages generally. These are important steps to address the widening income inequality between rich and poor, but also between the rich and the middle class.

$15/hour is still probably not really a living wage in most of the country, but it’s closer to getting there. Its main benefit is simply to make work pay again. One reason for the generally low labor participation rate in the United States is because work does not pay for most jobs that require few skills.

These actions are not happening due to an employer’s beneficence. They are the result of a lot of sustained actions by Democrats and progressive groups. It’s quite clear which party is really on the side of the working class, and which is not.

Like many Americans, I spent time eking out a living (if you can call it that) at or just above the minimum wage. It is nearly forty years in my past, but I never forgot just how hard it was, and it is much harder today than it was then. That is why I have supported actions like Fight for $15 to set $15/hour as a new minimum wage and to better allow these workers to unionize. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone who had to survive on these miserly wages could not. Basic decency requires that all Americans be paid a living wage. $15/hour is a start.

No right to work in “right to work” laws

The Thinker by Rodin

Wisconsin is the latest state to enact a so-called “right to work” law. With this law exactly half of the states are now right to work states. If your state is a right to work state, this means that you cannot be required to join a union as a condition for taking a job. If collective bargaining exists at a job site, the union can still negotiate benefits for you. You just have the right not to pay them union dues.

The effects on employees in these states are easily documented. In general you will earn less for the same job than in a state with no such laws. Unsurprisingly, this is because it is harder for a union to win the right to negotiate wages and benefits when they have fewer resources (union dues) to do it with. If paying union dues bothers you, there is an alternative: don’t take a job in the first place. If you think union dues are too high, as a union member you can petition for changes. Like any union (such as a credit union) a labor union is owned by its members. A union can disband itself if its members feel it is ineffective or if its dues are too onerous.

The supposed rationalization for right to work laws is that you as an employee should not have to pay from your wages fees that you do not want to pay. However, we are already required to have withheld from our wages federal income taxes, state income taxes, often city income taxes, pension contributions, Social Security and Medicare taxes. We can’t opt out of these. In many states other things are automatically withheld unless you explicitly opt out, such as your contribution to a 401-K retirement fund.

What if anything does all this have with a “right to work”? The theory seems to be that paying union dues by itself might be the difference between having a job that pays a wage you can live on and one you cannot live on. This is at best a dubious proposition, since you would be hard pressed to find a service-related profession where the real wage (after union dues) is less than a similar job without a union. It’s almost guaranteed that union members will negotiate better benefits for their members than you would by yourself bargaining with your employer.

“Right to work” laws are misnamed. You have no right to a job in any state. The closest we came was during the Great Depression. Government-created agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps hired the unemployed to build bridges and improve our national parks when private industry would not. My grandfather was one of these people that depended on a WPA job during the Great Depression. Today, if you are unemployed the best you can hope for are some limited unemployment benefits and food stamps. The reality for most people is that these benefits don’t begin to cover the real cost of living, so they are employed. They are just not employed enough to have a living wage. Many of these people are so good at finding jobs that they have two or three jobs simultaneously, generally part time with no benefits. Yet they still cannot afford to live and they survive at the margins, perhaps in group housing but often they end up homeless.

So right to work states don’t guarantee any right to work. Such laws thus provide no particular incentive to get work. And if you can’t find a job, state assistance at helping you find a job will be marginal at best. Maybe there is a state unemployment office where you can go to look at local job listings, although this is mostly done online now. To the extent you can get unemployment benefits, you will likely have to prove you are diligently searching for a job. This isn’t normally a problem because you cannot survive long on unemployment benefits. At best you will draw from your savings less quickly than you would without them.

What would a right to work look like? A right is distinguished from a privilege because it is inherent and inalienable. You have the right to practice the religion of your choice. If you had a true right to work then either a employer would have to hire you or the government would be the employer of last resort. You might not like the work they would give you but it would be work that you are capable of doing. And since it would be work instead of free labor, they would have to pay you a wage. And since we work to survive, the work would have to pay a living wage, i.e. you should be able to live above the poverty line from a full time job.

You’ll see none of this in any “right to work” state, or any state at all, which means there is no right to work in this country. What they really are is “the right to opt out of paying union dues while enjoying the benefits of a union should your job be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.” Of course if because of insufficient union dues, the union goes bankrupt then you are out of luck. And as is often the case in right to work states, with no requirement for you to pay union dues, most unions can’t organize to win collective bargaining rights. Unsurprisingly “right to work” states have much lower rates of unionized workers than other states.

Without a labor union not only are you likely to have fewer benefits, you are also more likely to lose your job, which contradicts the whole “right to work” philosophy. You are an “at will” employee, which means you can quit for anytime and any reason and leave your employer in the lurch. Your employer also has the right to fire you at any time, and generally for any reason except those few reasons (like due to your sex or race) prohibited by law. Of course, it is very hard to prove that you were deliberately fired due to these factors, so basically you can be let go at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, and with no severance pay unless there is a state law on that. You might be able to retain your health insurance under the COBRA law, only if you can pay the full cost of the premiums while getting no income.

Right to work laws are simply snake oil wherein the state gives you the “right” not to pay union dues at the almost certain cost of a reduced standard of living and with a greater likelihood of sudden unemployment. If it were explained to workers this way almost no employees would want them.

The Walmart egg cracks at last

The Thinker by Rodin

Walmart protesters like me are cheering, somewhat tentatively. We are celebrating Walmart’s announcement this week that it is raising its starting wages. Walmart will boost starting wages to $9 per hour this year and it will raise them to $10 per hour by February 2016. $10 an hour is still not a living wage, but it is at least a start in the right direction. In addition, Walmart is changing policies to allow more predictive schedules for its employees, many of who are part time and many of who have to struggle their Walmart schedules with other job schedules. Employees will know more than two weeks in advance what their hours will be and when their hours will be. In addition, those desiring more hours will be able to request them. This good news is trickling up. Department managers will get a raise too, up from $13 an hour to $15 an hour.

So hip hooray, for Walmart, but certainly not a hip-hip hooray. Walmart has obviously been assessing the optics of its labor policies for a long time. Organizations like Making Change at Walmart have given widespread attention to their lagging wages, and the hassles and often brutish conditions that their employees endure. This included some strikes, sit-downs and walkouts, not to mention Black Friday protests such as I helped organize last year. It is quite likely that without these events there would have been no announcement this week from Walmart.

I have been focusing on Walmart’s unfair labor practices for many years because I believed it was where the fulcrum of labor change needed be applied. This is because it is the nation’s (if not the world’s) largest private employer. So affecting real change in Walmart was likely to have a nudging effect on all the other private employers out there. Indeed, that is the expectation. There is at least one Walmart in any community of size. $10 an hour may still not be a living wage, but when someone looking for a job has a choice between Walmart at $10 an hour and washing dishes at an Applebees at $7.25 an hour, they will go with Walmart. Walmart gets a richer set of potential employees to choose from. To compete at some point Applebees has to raise its wages too.

Unquestionably some of this is due to the improving economy. With the official unemployment rate at 5.8 percent and many disaffected people rejoining the labor market each month, the labor pool is tightening up at last. A number of employers have been proactive. Costco and Wegmans have long paid their starting employees a living wage and not coincidentally have prospered. Starbucks, Gap Inc., Hobby Lobby and IKEA have all seen this freight train coming their way and recently raised wages. Walmart then is something of a laggard. However, due to its size it has sent a signal that other employers must respond to or have their businesses put in peril.

I doubt that the bean counters at Walmart have figured this out, but raising their employees’ wages is good for their bottom line as well. Most likely much of the raises will be spent at Walmart. As starting wages are raised nationwide Walmart stands to increase sales, as they cater to value customers that come predominantly from the middle class, working class and poor. Happier employees are likely to be more productive as well, which means that Walmart’s notoriously poorly stocked shelves may be less so in the future.

It also means, however marginally, that money which would have otherwise gone toward the rich, where it is unlikely to be spent, will instead go toward the working class, where it will almost certainly be spent. In short, it will mean that the economy will grow more than it otherwise would have. Since the United States leads the world economy, our greater prosperity and our demands for goods and services will spur the world economy, the beginning of a virtuous cycle.

None of this should be news, but it may be to those who favor austerity. Walmart’s and all employers’ low wage policies are ultimately self-defeating. Low wages create high turnover and lower employee morage. Low wages do not build employee loyalty and give no onus for employees to be productive. Low wages make employees feel used instead of valued. It creates unnecessary conflict between employees and management and creates the conditions for labor to organize that employers don’t like. It taints businesses by projecting them as cheap, uncaring and harsh.

It also tends to stifle business creativity. Fast food restaurants like Chipotle are prospering by offering fresher, tastier, trendier and more natural foods. Chipotle’s simple use of a cafeteria line moves customers through more quickly and more cheaply while allowing them to pay employees more while needing fewer of them. In short, this makes them more productive and profitable. McDonalds, which has used the counter methodology for its more than sixty years in business, can’t seem to rethink its business model in such obvious ways. Clinging to tradition rather than embracing change is a major reason for their lackluster sales.

Employers that demonstrate that they value employees in the form of living wages set up a virtuous cycle wherein higher profits are a probable outcome of a generous corporate philosophy. Walmart is beginning to dimly grasp this but in fact this is what worked for American for most of the latter half of the 20th century. In truth, Walmart’s profitability is centered on its ability to treat its employees with respect through living wages and humane working conditions. Without employees it simply cannot survive. It needs to see its employees as invaluable and treasured assets, not as commodities. Living wages are the primary way to demonstrate this. Then Walmart may see sustainable increases in sales and profits again.

How to truly value labor

The Thinker by Rodin

Paul Ryan, former Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chairman, has a new concern about Obamacare. It comes from a very selective reading of a new Congressional Budget Office report. The report noted that because Obamacare helps decouple health insurance from employment, some people who are working only because of their employer’s health insurance will quit and get their health insurance through a public exchange instead.

The CBO estimates that the equivalent of more than two million jobs will disappear over the next few years from employees who can now make this choice. Ryan said this means that Americans will “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class”. This is because, apparently, they will prefer sloth instead because they have the option of getting subsidized health insurance from the government instead.

Other Republicans leapt to inferences the CBO never said. The typical talking point became, “Obamacare will destroy more than two million jobs.” As if when people leave their job, employers won’t try to fill those jobs. By this logic anyone who quits their job is destroying jobs. Moreover, last I heard if you quit your job you won’t get free health care. You may be entitled to a subsidy if your income is low enough and if truly destitute and devoid of assets you could go on Medicaid. But that is hardly new. Moreover, employers may be entitled to government subsidies to provide health insurance to their employees. That’s part of Obamacare too. I guess a business could decide not to take these subsidies, but almost all that can will, because they like profits. I don’t see any Republicans referring to businesses that take these subsidies as freeloaders. But people who quit a soul sucking job apparently have no appreciation for the dignity of work and want to be bums.

Personally, I think it’s great when people quit their jobs. People don’t quit jobs they like. They quit jobs they hate. So Ryan could not be more wrong. People who quit a job generally expect to find a better and more fulfilling work somewhere else. If they thought otherwise they would stay in their current job. Obamacare increases personal freedom. Most likely everyone will be better off. Employers will get more productive employees that are more vested in their work and those who quit will be (or expect to be) in a happier situation.

As for the dignity of work being a personal value, it’s a curious argument for a Republican to make. Right now the situation is reversed. Government gives you incentive not to work, not through health insurance subsidies, but by allowing those with cash to invest their money and tax it at rates far less than the tax rates of labor. Capital gains mean nothing to most of us that are working. We may have retirement accounts with six or seven digits of value, and we still don’t care about capital gains. That’s because capital gains do not apply to our retirement accounts. When, in your geezerhood, you do take withdrawals from your Keogh or 401K, you won’t get a capital gains tax rate of 15% like those moneyed Wall Street types get for their non-retirement investments. That money will be taxed as if you worked to acquire them, i.e. earned income. Only those with liquid assets available for investing outside of retirement accounts can take advantage of those low capital gains tax rates. Others like me are taxed at a considerably higher rate because we work and make a good wage. In my case, I am in the 25% tax bracket. As I noted before, others like Mitt Romney don’t work at all, are filthy rich and are in the 15% tax bracket because their income is almost all from capital gains.

If the dignity of work is now an important Republican value, then how about making work pay? People working at Wal-Mart or McDonalds apparently cannot survive on their wages. Many of these people would be malnourished or homeless if they were not getting food stamps or in some cases public housing. If they could survive without government handouts and actually be able to acquire some modest savings and live in their own place, maybe they would feel dignity and value. But many employers don’t care about their dignity or value because they won’t pay them a living wage. What does that say about how employers value labor? Government could set a living wage floor that actually was a living wage. Low income workers would have more money in their pockets and would likely spend most of it, increasing economic activity. Having dignity in your work implies that you can be self-sufficient from your labor. Low wage jobs appear to have the opposite effect.

And if work should be valued, shouldn’t it be valued at least as much as investment income? Unless you inherit wealth, it takes a heap of high-paid labor to acquire surplus funds to invest outside of your retirement. The argument for low capital gains tax rates was to spur economic growth. That doesn’t seem to be working so well, as evidenced by our anemic economy and the high unemployment rate.

So this argument about the dignity of work is one of two things: rhetoric or, if sincere, it should be a call to action for society to put its money where its mouth is. This can be done by requiring employers to pay a living wage and by increasing capital gains tax rates to at least be at parity with income tax rates. Arguably, capital gains and dividends should be taxed at rates higher than labor. It would demonstrate that we truly value labor.

But you already know the answer to the argument: it’s rhetoric. Republicans like Paul Ryan don’t give a damn about the dignity of work or pretty much anyone not in their socioeconomic class and who does not share their values. For those of us in the working class, there is only one appropriate response and it involves lifting your middle finger to these hypocritical assholes.

The power and profitability of treating workers with dignity

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s taken a few years but striking fast food and Walmart workers are slowly getting some national attention. This Black Friday there was a continuation of strikes and protests that happened on Black Friday 2012, only bigger, with at least 111 protestors arrested around Walmart stores nationwide. Organizers at Our Walmart, a group organizing Walmart workers (I have given to their strike fund) claim 1500 actions at Walmarts nationwide, up from 400 last year.

One-day strikes at fast food restaurants, which used to be rare, are now becoming routine as well. Just the other day a strike was held by workers at a McDonalds inside the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. The workers there are making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. You would think that since these are federal facilities, contracts with fast food vendors would require contractors to pay their employees a living wage. But you would be wrong.

Even Walmart would agree that the facts prove their minimum wage jobs do not pay a living wage. Studies of various states routinely show Walmart employees as the largest group of recipients of food stamps in the state. Unsurprisingly, McDonalds is usually number two. On their employee web sites, both Walmart and McDonalds suggest their employees utilize public subsidies to increase their standard of living, a standard of living they refuse to provide.

This week in Washington D.C. the first two Walmarts opened in the city. There was much rejoicing, but not because their employees were going to be paid a living wage. Walmarts in the city mean that the city’s voluminous poor no longer need to take long and expensive subway and bus trips to the suburbs to get those Walmart low prices. It’s increasingly obvious though why their prices are so low. It’s because Walmart doesn’t see a point in paying a living wage when the government will keep their employees from starving for free. Food stamps will help provide basic nutrition for their employees, and Medicaid will provide health insurance of a sort thanks to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, don’t expect Walmart and McDonald’s lobbying firms to be pressing the government to get rid of food stamps and Medicaid. Their business model and profit forecasts depend on them.

What’s particularly infuriating though is that both of these employers could easily pay their employees a living wage and still make stockholders happy. They just choose not to do so. Various studies have looked at the cost of these benefits versus their profits, and it is easily affordable. They just see no point in doing this because federal subsidies effectively take taxpayer’s money and give it to their shareholders instead. And this is because we have no law that says employers must pay a living wage.

Critics of those proposing a national $15 an hour minimum wage simply say this means that employers will cut jobs. After all, they can hire two people at $7.25 an hour for one person at $15 an hour. The problem with this logic is that you cannot actually survive on $7.25 an hour without public subsidies and likely a second or third job as well. Naturally, this doesn’t bother these employers. They are in business to make money, not to be sensitive to their employees’ feelings and wallets.

If all public subsidies were removed tomorrow and the minimum wage was not raised, these employees would be showing up at work hungry (as many already do, particularly toward the end of the month) or, more likely, would have no fixed address because they could not afford rent. Their unwashed condition would probably not allow them to be employable at all. Which goes to prove that a minimum wage is not a living wage. Instead, it is a recipe for continued poverty.

There are reasons that even a Republican should embrace for paying a living wage. For those who think the government should do less, making employers pay a living wage means that federal and state governments don’t have to provide food and social services to these low wage earners. It reduces the costs and scope of the federal government.

It also ends indirect corporate subsidies. It allows companies to prove that they really are more efficient than other companies by removing the incentive toward employee inefficiency that comes with government subsidies. Think about McDonalds today and compare it to McDonalds thirty or forty years ago, if you are old enough to remember back that far. I am old enough and I can tell you for a fact very little has changed other than the menu has gotten unhealthier and the cash registers are now electronic. For forty years McDonalds has not really rethought how its restaurants could deliver better food, do so more efficiently and — here’s a crazy idea — with some actual employee engagement.

Yet Costco has found a business model that more than pays their employees a living wage, and still allows them to thrive as a business and be a leader of low prices. What incentive does Sam’s Club (a subsidiary of Walmart) have to prove their mettle when Costco can do what it refuses to do and Walmart’s profits can be boosted by government subsidies to its employees?

Perhaps most importantly, any employer worth his salt has learned long ago that employees will be more productive if you make it worth their while. They must have missed those videos by sociologist Morris Massey, such as this clip you can see on YouTube. If you want to get the best from your employees, listen to what they have to say.

It’s not that Walmart and McDonalds employees are unproductive. They are like a hamster on its wheel. They always work at top speed because they are always being monitored. They are also being told exactly how to do their job with no ability to be innovative. So mostly, they burn out or turn dull and unremittingly sullen. You can’t keep this up forever at $7.25 an hour so you will tend to quit. Even if the next job only pays $7.25 an hour, you quit on the hope that maybe you won’t have to run so quickly on the wheel with the next employer.

These “associates” have no particular loyalty because they are not given any incentive to be loyal. Give them incentives, in the form of higher pay, more interesting and challenging work, and by incorporating their ideas into the business, and you might earn some loyalty and by extension more profit. More importantly, you unleash the power of their imaginations. They’re not stupid and have plenty of great ideas on how to do things better, just no incentive to divulge them. Leveraging their ideas is a great business model. With Costco’s living wage they became keys to Costco’s success, and the key reason Walmart’s revenue stream is suffering.

The slaves on southern plantations gave all they could as well, and generally resented it. At some point they either rebelled or simply gave up. A death by beating is at least an end to suffering.

Walmart, McDonalds and most of these retailers and fast food outlets simply suffer from a poverty of imagination. The way to a sustainable business model and a happy workforce is to stop treating their “associates” like cogs in the great wheel of business. Instead, treat them as people with actual needs, like the need to have a roof over their heads and food to eat.

As a matter of public policy, there should be a national minimum wage guaranteed to be a living wage and it should be indexed automatically for inflation. It should probably vary geographically depending on the local cost of living. For those employers too unenlightened to understand that real profit comes from harnessing the minds and creativity of their employees, it at least sets a bar of decency. Any businessman worth his salt will be anxious to pay their employees more for the privilege of leveraging their thoughts and creativity to make their business thrive long into the future.

Revenge of the ex-retail worker

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s no secret that I don’t like Wal-Mart. In fact, I pretty much abhor it. I abhor it not for its merchandise or its low prices, but principally because they give their workers the shaft. They push workers to crazy and dangerous levels of productivity, constantly look for ways to work them even harder, give almost nothing in the way of benefits or job security, and don’t begin to pay them enough to actually live on. On a Black Friday a few years back, bargain-crazy customers crushed a Wal-Mart worker to death.

Most of their employees are not full time employees, but part time workers. This is not unusual in the retail business, of course and it is fine as far as Wal-Mart is concerned. Part time employees cost less, are easily let go, can have hours cut on a dime and get no benefits like vacation pay. Granted that full time employees at Wal-Mart don’t make much either but they are entitled to some measly benefits such as overtime pay, if Wal-Mart will actually grants them, as they have been loathe to do in recent years.

The fact is that even full time Wal-Mart retail employees, with a few exceptions, cannot survive on Wal-Mart wages alone. This is true even if they have additional jobs. Most of them qualify as working poor. They can be found trying to make up the difference shuffling two or three jobs, hoping for handouts at food banks and when needed getting treatment at emergency rooms.

In most states, children of Wal-Mart employees make up the largest group receiving health care via the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). For example, in Alabama alone Wal-Mart employees have 4,700 children enrolled in the CHIP program, more than twice as many children as employees working at McDonalds in Alabama. Wal-Mart won’t raise salaries of their employees so they can afford health insurance, so taxpayers are left to pick up the tab.

Since Wal-Mart does not have to pay for their employee’s health insurance, and the few that are eligible for Wal-Mart’s very limited health insurance plan are able to afford it, this in part explains how they deliver low prices. In effect, taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart’s low prices. Taxpayers are making up some of the difference between the real cost of living and wages that Wal-Mart is willing to pay. It is still not enough. Despite working forty or more hours a week, many Wal-Mart employees also qualify for food stamps. This strikes me as obscene: how can it be possible to be fully employed in this country and still not have enough to eat? How can we possibly permit a minimum wage that won’t even keep a person from going hungry?

In some ways though the workers in the stores have it good, at least compared to Wal-Mart’s warehouse workers. Wal-Mart will say that they are not their workers, so they don’t count, but the people who fill trucks at distribution centers mostly are loading trucks full of goods that are shipped to Wal-Marts. They are working in hellish and unsafe working environments. They too are often subjected to unpaid overtime, numerous violations of safety and overtime regulations as well as long and crazy hours.

Low prices of course are also made possible by squeezing the whole Wal-Mart supplier chain. When you keep squeezing distributors and suppliers, they keep finding ways to squeeze workers. The results are pretty obvious and accounts for much of the minimal wage growth over the last decade. Still, when you make as much in the way of profits as Wal-Mart does (about $15B a year), it’s clear that the company could afford to do a lot better for their employees, but simply won’t. Wal-Mart is emblematic of a general trend that stockholders win at the expense of workers. In the case of Wal-Mart, it is also at the expense of taxpayers. Arguably, Wal-Mart is a prime example of corporate welfare at work, which likely explains the company’s outsized contributions toward political candidates. However much they spend to influence politicians, it must be considerably cheaper than paying their employees a living wage.

It’s been ten years since I stepped inside a Wal-Mart. It’s possible I never will step inside a Wal-Mart again. My condition for shopping at a Wal-Mart again is that they have to pay their employees a living wage. Right now Wal-Mart simply refuses to do so, even for the full time ones, unless they are a store manager and maybe if they run a department. If an employee does earn a living wage, if you divide their wage by the number of hours these workers actually work, their wage per hour is still low. Many of them are salaried, which means you may be working sixty or more hours a week but being paid for forty.

Obviously Wal-Mart is not the only retailer screwing its employees. The same can be said for most of the major retailers out there, including Target and Kmart. However, there are prominent exceptions. Costco is one of the most successful retailers out there and is also quite profitable. Applicants are beating down its doors to get jobs there. That’s because Costco pays living wages and Wal-Mart does not. The grocery chain Wegmans also pays living wages. It’s obvious when you are in a Wegmans that its employees like their jobs. They almost gush with enthusiasm and energy. You can’t say the same for Wal-Mart greeters.

Recently, some Wal-Mart workers have realized they simply have nothing left to lose. There have been recent walkouts that resemble strikes at twelve Wal-Marts across the country. You can’t really call them strikes because Wal-Mart is famous for being non-unionized, at least here in the United States. Wal-Mart workers have made slight inroads elsewhere, like in Canada and ironically Communist China (although its unions are really puppets of the Communist Party.) Strikes are not problems at Costco and Wegmans, probably because management treats employees with respect and compensates them fairly. They happen when the frustration level becomes so acute that workers simply cannot endure it anymore. These Wal-Mart walkouts may be a harbinger of things to come.

I do know one thing: if the behemoth Wal-Mart can be made to scream uncle, then justice is possible for retail workers across the country. That it is starting to be felt at Wal-Mart through strikes and walkouts is poetic justice. If employees can be paid fair wages at Wal-Mart, it could create real change across the entire retail industry, whose employees desperately need to be paid living wages.

So I wish these strikers well, and hope that more Wal-Mart employees join them. I am glad to make a contribution to their strike fund and urge them to hang tough. For like many of us, I too was once an underpaid retail worker. More than thirty years has passed but I have not forgotten how shabbily I was treated. So far I have been able to do little more than avoid patronizing the more egregious employee-screwing retail chains like Wal-Mart. As I get older and find myself with more money in my pocket and time to become engaged in just causes, the more I feel the need to work for their justice and wreak some real justice on amoral corporations like Wal-Mart.