Black Friday protest at Walmart

The Thinker by Rodin

Remember this post? Well, probably not. Anyhow, in it I promised to try to eke revenge against the retailers of the world for the shabby way I was treated when I was a retail worker (1978 to 1980) for the now defunct Montgomery Ward Corporation which today is even worse. Now that I am retired, lack of time was no longer an excuse, so I made a note on my calendar to attend a Black Friday protest at my local Walmart (Sterling, Virginia in my case) to protest their appallingly low wages and working conditions.

Signing up was easy. I was already a member of Making Change at Walmart, the site to go if you are not a Walmart employee but want to support their cause. I get regular emails from them and have even made a couple of contributions to their strike fund over the years. I was urged to find a Walmart Black Friday protest near me, so I simply filled in the web form and marked the date and time on my calendar. For several years now, the Our Walmart campaign has targeted Black Friday for protests because it is the busiest shopping day of the year. This year a record 1600 store protests was planned.

Thus far my protesting had been confined to mass events on the national mall. This kind of protest would be a lot different. The number of protestors was likely to be small and Walmart would doubtlessly be on the lookout for us. Protest rules were pretty murky, but seemed worth whatever minor risk it entailed. This is after all Walmart: the nation’s largest, nastiest and stingiest employer. Every year they find new ways to screw their “associates”. Among their egregious tactics over the last year were requirements to buy their own uniforms, canceling health insurance for certain part time employees (doubtless few could afford it in any event), cutting the hours of workers (leading to predictably long lines at cash registers and empty shelves) and erratic schedules. All this for an average wage of $8.80 an hour and where you might get an extra dime per hour the next time your performance was reviewed.

With several weeks of notice, I wanted to see if I could convince any others to join me. Notes on Facebook did not turn up any nibbles, so I sent a note to Paul, chair of the social justice committee at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. He agreed to sponsor the protest for our church. I made sure announcements were posted in the church bulletin and hoped a few members of my congregation would join me. We have less than 200 members, so I kept my expectations modest. Fortunately for me, it got the attention of certain influential women at the church (a.k.a. the Knitting Circle, which my wife attends) who were also suitably outraged and started making protest signs. On protest day, eight of us with signs in hand were ready to protest.

However, our protest organizer weaseled out. Early on Black Friday morning we found an email from him in our inboxes. He claimed insomnia the night before and canceled the event, but he did encourage anyone that wanted to to come out and protest. We took him up on it.

I confess it was hard to get in the protesting spirit when the temperature was in the low thirties with gusty winds, but we were ready. We met in the church parking lot, collected our signs and drove out to the Sterling Virginia Walmart. As we moved toward the entrance we encountered an older couple from Illinois in town but with signs. We were it, apparently, but at least with ten protestors we got into the double digits.

Black Friday protest against Walmart's labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store
Black Friday protest against Walmart’s labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store

For 10 AM on a Black Friday, there weren’t many people going into or out of this Walmart. We stood silently outside the Walmart entrances, being careful not to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Occasionally we got a toot of a horn or thumbs up, but mostly we stood and shivered. We had a feeling though that it would not be long before Walmart management noticed us. We were prescient. After about ten minutes, a Walmart security officer told us we were on private property and we could only protest on public property. He pointed us to a hill at the far back end of the parking lot. Dutifully we walked back there. This was not an ideal location, but it was convenient to incoming traffic so we stood there with our signs and waved them up and down as cars went by.

Apparently we were not far out enough. After fifteen minutes or so we found we were observed by officers in two cars from the Loudoun County sheriff’s office. Eventually an officer approached us with the Walmart store manager. We patiently explained we were directed here by their store security. But, no, we were still on private property we were told. Walmart owned all of it. Some sort of conglomerate of course typically owns shopping centers, so it is in theory all private property. It’s pretty clear that Walmart wanted us way out of the way, like outer Siberia if possible. The closest truly public property, we were politely informed, was a median strip on Nokes Boulevard, which led into the parking lot.

And so we shuffled out there with our protest signs, dodging aggressive traffic to do so. We got the occasional thumbs up and toot of a horn in support, but mostly Walmart had gotten us out of the way, which is probably the strategy it emulated at many other stores. Had we had more protesters, perhaps we would have been harder to dislodge. After about an hour we ended our protest and moved on.

Nonetheless we were in reasonably high spirits. Without professional organization, we didn’t know what to expect or what was legal, but Walmart’s response felt very scripted. The store manager was never angry with us, but after the event one of our crew took a few of our signs into the store, and tried to give them to the store manager. She was intercepted by an assistant manager, and told she was unwelcome in the store, and ordered to leave.

Making change at Walmart is hard, not so much for us outside protesters, but certainly for Walmart employees who join the Our Walmart movement. They frequently suffer illegal firings or reduced hours. They are much braver than we were. We were just testing the protest waters, but I think I know where I’ll be next Black Friday. And hopefully we’ll be better-organized next time, and our organizer won’t use the weasely excuse of insomnia for not showing up.

As a practical matter, real change is happening in two fronts. First, many states and communities have realized that since retailers won’t raise wages and the federal government won’t, they must. So cities like Seatac in Washington State have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Northern Virginia, $15 is a living wage, but just barely. Those Walmart workers earning $8.80 an hour or so at their Sterling store are probably working a couple of other part time jobs just to get by. They may very well be getting some government assistance, which means your taxes are subsidizing Walmart and other retailers scandalously low wages. More recently, the city of San Francisco passed a retail workers bill of rights. It requires employers to make up work schedules for their part time employees two weeks in advance, helping to give them some predictability to their schedules. This addresses the sad reality that part time work these days does not supplement other wages, but is what many workers try to live on.

Do not assume that minimum wage workers are mostly students living at home and thus it’s okay to pay the $7.25 an hour. The average age of a minimum wage worker is 35. These people are hustling simply to survive in poverty. They deserve a living wage and better working conditions and hopefully just one job so they get some downtime. It’s quite clear though that Walmart will continue to frustrate and obfuscate attempts at justice for their employees until the price becomes unbearable, i.e. it seriously affects their profits and sales. I will do my part to make it unbearable.

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: November 2014 edition

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s that time of the month for me to scour the Craigslist Northern Virginia casual encounters section. It’s easy to do. I don’t have to think about it too much, it brings in search traffic, and it rarely fails to be entertaining. You simply can’t make up some of these posts because often they are so bizarre that we regular people simply lack the imagination to think of some of these things. It’s also the Friday and thus the start of the weekend. You can almost feel libidos rising as great expectations get set for kinky casual encounters this weekend, virtually all of them to be dashed.

Some statistics. I’m just over 200 posts of Craigslist traffic this month. There are at least 204 hits that I can document but possibly more that I can’t. So I may have milked this trend for all I can get from it. Regardless, after I move next year I expect to drop this feature from the site. I’ve looked at Craigslist in Western Massachusetts where I’ll be living, and due to its lower population density there are far fewer of these sorts of posts, and they are far more pedestrian.

Anyhow, bringing up the first page, I see:

  • 37 men looking for women
  • 43 men looking for men
  • 3 men looking for a couple
  • 1 man looking for multiple men
  • 3 men looking for transsexuals and cross dressers
  • 0 women looking for women
  • 5 women looking for men
  • 3 women looking for multiple men
  • 5 transsexuals or cross dressers looking for men

Onward:

  • Men, do you want to be some guy’s slave? This guy is taking applications. It sounds like he has one already and you would just be another one. You can be bi or straight, and given the latter I’m wondering why any heterosexual would apply. He’s looking for you to primarily do housework but you do get occasional opportunities to be tortured in his dungeon. What could be more fun? Well, just about anything. He must save a fortune by not hiring a maid service.
  • Some months back I mentioned a guy aroused by the Latino men in a local Home Depot. Not sure if this is the same guy (probably not as he is in Leesburg) but he’s going with a similar theme. He’s hot for Latino men and their crotches, except it’s Walmart Latino men that have him hyper salivating. I hope Walmart security there keep tabs on the men’s room and also keeps the Loudoun County police on speed dial, because he is into giving you oral sex in one of their men’s room stalls. However, he is open to doing it in a car as well. My guess is he’ll be easy to spot because he’ll be wandering around the Leesburg Walmart and licking his lips at anyone that might pass for a Latino guy.
  • She used to be a man, is done with her sex reassignment surgery and is now looking for a man to penetrate her. (Warning: explicit picture.) The good news for men into this kind of sex, as she says, is that you can’t make her pregnant, which if you think about it would be a trick on par with immaculate conception. Maybe womb and ovary transplants will be the next brave new frontier for these new women.
  • Ladies, do you like to watch a couple in heat? You can get as close as you want to this couple (38 and 40) in Alexandria. Maybe bringing a large magnifying glass is in order. Undressing is optional.
  • Here’s another man (see last month’s post), this time from Burke that is in his 20s who is looking to buy women’s used panties. But this one has a catch: it has to happen in person. He will compensate you for your trouble but it looks like he has more than used panties in mind. “I’m open minded, if you are too, maybe we can do a little bit more.”
  • A couple from Woodbridge would like to do a “soft swap” this weekend, maybe. They are both in their 50’s and want to meet for dinner first to see if there is chemistry. It sounds like this lab experiment will fizzle out from lack of combustible material.
  • Lots of “women” will advertise on Craigslist for men but are basically looking to sell their bodies. Their ads are quickly flagged, which is probably by there are so few postings from women. This 31-year-old man though at least is different: he is openly soliciting for women (two women at the same time) to fulfill his fantasy, and apparently he expects them to be whores, as he is willing to pay with “Benjamins”.
  • He’s a buff 21-year-old guy in boxers looking for a woman to screw. To improve the odds, he also posted an ad for a transsexual. The same photo and text are in both ads.
  • Twister was basically a game to allow underage girls and boys to get into each other’s intimate space. You are never too old to play the game however. Since you are an adult now, how about Naked Twister? This six-foot man from Alexandria is all set. I guess he is clueless on how totally lame this ad is, which on Craigslist says a lot.
  • Are you into playing with daddies? He is a daddy all right but at 67 he’s old enough to be a granddaddy and maybe even a great granddaddy. So are you into incest role-play with a grandfather? If so please respond to him. My guess is he is the least likely poster on Craigslist tonight to get a reply.
  • I like the occasional truth in advertising in a Craigslist post. This 32-year-old married guy from Reston says he nearing the end of his marriage and is “a bit of a hot mess”. What woman could possibly resist this offer?
  • This 21-year-old woman knows how to have a great time: get high as a kite sniffing coke and then get screwed by an over-endowed man. It’s unclear whether as host you get to provide her skiing package.
  • Attention autistic women like Temple Grandin: you too can take comfort from being kenneled. He wants a picture but it’s unclear whether it should include you with a dog collar in your mouth.
  • Craigslist ads for men looking for men in particular would make most sailors blush. Here’s a 29-year-old gay guy who simply wants another man to kiss and cuddle with. He’s looking for something truly bizarre: intimacy. If it weren’t for the venue, this ad would be sort of sweet and romantic.
  • A 28-year-old local woman wants to invite 8-10 men to bed, all at the same time. She is not into “lame campus stuff”. Strangely, here’s a 36-year-old woman looking for basically the same thing. I suspect this is the same poster. This is probably her as well. Someone(s) are definitely in heat! Maybe they should just go to this party.
  • Ladies: an Arlington man wants to suck your toes and nothing else, scout’s honor!
  • This post from a 26-year-old guy in Leesburg wins the most disgusting post of the month award. Don’t read it! You have been warned!
  • Can a Korean lady be a redneck? Men are invited to find out.

More in December.

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.

Cruising for business

The Thinker by Rodin

A second cruise just months after our first cruise in fifteen years was my wife’s idea, not mine. She thinks that vacations should be about relaxation and pampering, not about hassling with hotels, rental cars and airlines. I am naturally more active than she is, but I concur that cruises have some major virtues. For me, their chief virtue is that while you visit lots of places, you unpack just once.

This cruise is on Royal Caribbean, which as best I can ascertain is the fanciest cruise line, at least among the major players. They certainly have great looking and modern ships, unlike Carnival’s, whose fleet is looking seriously dated. Fortunately for their competitors, I am not someone who puts a premium on fanciness. I do expect staterooms to be comfortable, clean and reasonably quiet, the destinations interesting, and the price not exorbitant. I don’t need chocolates on my bed pillow or (an increasingly alarming trend among cruise companies) animals created from folded towels posted at the foot of my bed.

Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans
Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans

If I had to pick two characteristics of cruise companies that I measure them by, it would be their food and the evening entertainment. The entertainment on Norwegian was excellent every night, and since my wife and I see plenty of shows, so we know quality from crap. Norwegian even brought in a troupe from Second City for one night of entertainment. I had not laughed so hard in years. Comedians are popular entertainers on cruise ships, I expect because they are relatively cheap compared to staging these Broadway-lite shows. Still, Norwegian has their own cast of singers, dancers and acrobats that truly dazzled. Our last show before berthing in Boston last August had a Bollywood theme with acrobats on bungee cords jumping from the rafters in time to the live music. It’s pretty hard to top that. As for the food, if they were still around then I’d be glad to cruise again on a dumpy old Dolphin Cruise Lines ship again as we did in 1995. We did find gourmet food last night on the Voyager of the Seas, but it was at Portofino, their specialty Italian restaurant that naturally cost extra. On dumpy Dolphin, there was just one main dining room but all the passengers ate gourmet food. You left the dining room hoping your licking the plate wasn’t too obvious.

Otherwise our cruise on Royal Caribbean seems about the same as our cruise on Norwegian. Both ships are immaculately clean and over the top opulent. Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas wins marginally over the Norwegian Dawn, simply because the ship is bigger and no expense was spared. This is because at the time of its christening in 1999, it was the largest cruise ship in the world. For a guy who tends to shop at Kohl’s instead of Niemen Marcus, opulence simply does not matter. I won’t be purchasing fine diamonds or fancy artwork at their promenade in either event. Yet, in many ways Royal Caribbean is more pedestrian. Their “specialty” restaurants include a Ben & Jerry’s and a Johnny Rockets. Whereas Norwegian had at least half a dozen upscale specialty restaurants, the Voyager of the Seas offers only Portofino.

Royal Caribbean is at least less in your face with announcements. Norwegian made sure we were aware of every single event via frequent and loud announcements. I grew to loathe my cruise directors, particularly the assistant cruise director for her endlessly annoying and obviously insincere whines promoting bingo. On Royal Caribbean they are more discreet, and generally limit themselves to a morning and noon announcement. Given their four-page list of activities we receive every day, we should have a good idea of what’s going on.

One thing I am discovering: no matter how nice things are for us passengers, the bulk of the cruise staff has it rough. Perhaps there is something exotic about working for a company like Royal Caribbean, but after asking questions of our waiter I have to wonder what sane person would sign up to work on a cruise line. Most Americans would whine about working on Saturdays. At least for the waiters in the Royal Caribbean dining room, there is never a day off until the cruise season is over or their contract expires. Our waiter told us he works ten-hour days seven days a week. I guess when you are in international waters, you don’t have to worry about any stinking union contracts.

Moreover, the vast majority of these jobs are mind-numbingly dull and tedious. I watched one guy today in the café doing nothing but filling up glasses with ice and pouring water and lemonade into them. There are whole crews in the café that do nothing but constantly take your dirty dishes to the dishwasher or smile and squirt your hand with sanitizers as you enter the restaurant. Just the thought of doing this for seventy hours a week sounds like enduring one of the lower levels in Dante’s Hell. Hopefully they at least get to rotate through positions to relieve the tedium. Most are away from family, but today’s newsletter “fun fact” tells us the ship has 134 married couples among the crew. I hope they work the same shifts.

Once the land recedes, your world shrinks to your cruise ship. You may become myopic like me and notice things you should not. Royal Caribbean seems anally obsessed with cleanliness in a Joan Crawford sort of way. I imagine that a major outbreak on a cruise ship can have a huge effect on a company’s reputation and its bottom line, so it perhaps justifies the omnipresent Purex hand sanitizer machines and crew endlessly applying germ killers to handrails and surfaces. But is it really necessary to refrain from shaking the hands of our fellow passengers, as they recommend? Are we really supposed to give them fist bumps instead? Even Martha Stewart would have to find this behavior extreme.

However, kudos to Royal Caribbean for making smokers’ lives inconvenient. Norwegian lets guests smoke in their staterooms. Here guests are allowed to smoke on their balconies, if they have one, and on the port side of the cruise deck. Also, kudos to Royal Caribbean for creating child-free zones. Up on the cruise deck there are adults only swimming areas, hot tubs and lounge chairs that are far away from the shrieks of children. Been there and done the child-rearing thing and once was enough.

My mind keeps wandering. What, I wondered, would cruising look like if Wal-Mart ran a cruise ship? The idea may seem absurd, but given all the money in this cruising lifestyle perhaps they will enter the market someday. If so, I can already picture it. Cruising, which at least strives to be a classy experience, would devolve into mediocrity but at least it would be affordable to those with more modest means than ours. Here are some features of a Wal-Mart cruise ship that I predict if it ever gets into the business:

  • Everyone on the staff including the captain would have a smiley-faced yellow button on their breast and wear the ubiquitous blue Wal-Mart uniforms. But most of the crew would actually be subcontractors hired from third world countries so Wal-Mart would not have to pay any health insurance or retirement benefits.
  • One deck would be a Wal-Mart superstore, with the added bonus that purchases would be duty-free. That’s keeping those prices low!
  • Main dining would consist of a food court that would probably contain the greasiest of greasy franchises that you see at Wal-Marts, and no it would not be included in your cruise price. Yes, there would be a 24-hour Pizza Hut in the food court, along with a McDonalds, but definitely no Starbucks. Too upscale. Wal-Mart would market their own brand of coffee instead and the coffee shop would probably include boxes of Krispy Kremes you can purchase. The coffee would probably be a Sam’s Club brand. Need a salad? Wait until you arrive at a port of call and keep your fingers crossed. Instead, it you would get to choose from grease and sugar, with every entrée guaranteed to be at least 500 calories and contribute toward heart disease.
  • Pretty much every object in your state room could also be bought at a Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart, including the furniture.
  • To keep prices low, you would use the same sheets and towels for the duration of the cruise.
  • You could save five percent if you cleaned your own stateroom. There would be scouring powder under the sink and $19.99 vacuum cleaner in the closet, but your cabin would have to pass inspection before you vacated to avoid a cleaning fee.
  • When you sat on the potty in your cabin, you would stare into a TV screen with compulsory announcements promoting ship specials.
  • Instead of a U.S. Coast Guard drill at the start of the voyage, you would be forced to sit in an auditorium and listen to Wal-Mart affiliated time-share pitches.
  • The premium beer in the food court would be Bud Light.
  • There would be deals for special airline fares based on an affiliation with Southwest.
  • A sampling of evening entertainment: wrestling, an abridged play based on the life of Sam Walton and a contest for the most convincing imitation of a Fox News anchor.
  • You would have an RFID chip embedded in your earlobe for the duration of the cruise, so you could always be found. You would see advertisements customized for you on electronic billboards as you walked around the promenade.
  • Only penny slot machines would be allowed in the casino.

I had better stop before I give Wal-Mart too many ideas.

Give ’em a real holiday

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t know if you have noticed, but real holidays have been slowly disappearing. It’s getting almost impossible to find a holiday that is, well, a holiday. If you are thinking that a holiday is the same thing as having a paid day off during the week to shop, Madison Avenue blesses you. If you are thinking a holiday is a day where you stay home and your employer pays for it, and everything that represents the hassle of normal life pretty much shuts down then, like the Grinch, you have some idea of the true meaning of a holiday. A holiday is a day when life generally stops. It’s like being retired for a day. It’s a mental health day.

It’s hard to believe but this is the way it used to be. On Memorial Day during the decades following the Civil War, when it was better known as Decoration Day, the only work-like activity was decorating the graves of civil war soldiers and with about 700,000 of them there were plenty to decorate. The big event of the day was watching the parade down Main Street, but that was about it. If you felt ambitious, maybe you went back home and roasted some ears of corn or hamburger steaks on a grill in the backyard. Our Civil War seems almost trivial compared to the twenty million or so who died in the First World War. No surprise then that Veterans Day (when it was better known as Armistice Day) was also often a day for quiet contemplation and for expressing genuine gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy due to our veterans. Veterans Day might have also been focused around a parade down Main Street, where the populace would applaud or take off their hats as proud veterans marched past.

Today, most employers do not even give the day as a holiday. World War I is so 1919. The last American soldier that served in the Great War died a few years back. Instead, pretty much all our holidays have been co-opted to honor our real national religion: capitalism. Even Martin Luther King has been used by Madison Avenue as an excuse to sell stuff in what is otherwise a dead retail month. King did move mountains, but his legacy now is principally about moving mountains of mattresses, sheets, pillowcases and appliances.

Supporting this seemingly insatiable need to shop are millions of retail workers, who are virtually the worst paid people in the country. (Migrant workers may be worse off.) With a few exceptions, if you work retail not only are you working inconvenient hours, you are likely not even making close to a living wage. In fact, you are likely a part timer because few retail stores want to hire you full time. Then they might have to pay you benefits or overtime, which are expensive. If you haven’t compared the cost of living with retail workers’ income, you can trust me on this: you cannot earn even poverty line wages working retail. If you support yourself working retail, even with two or more jobs you are probably eligible for food stamps.

If all this were not enough for retail workers, then there are your hours, which are likely to be constantly shifting. If you work part time for our largest retail employer (Wal-Mart) expect to be batted around like a ping pong ball. You may work forty hours one week and four hours the next. Expect to be straightening store shelves at 2 a.m. and maybe back for more at 6 a.m. You may even be locked in the store overnight.

You sure would appreciate a real holiday where for just a couple of days a year you can just zone out while someone else helps pay your bills. But apparently even a couple of holidays a year are a couple too many for retail workers. Thanksgiving is no longer sacrosanct. That’s right, retail worker. No turkey with stuffing for you, not that you could afford turkey anyhow with organic turkeys going at $4.09 a pound this year. Better to keep your Thanksgiving meal modest: maybe a dozen Krispy Kremes for dinner instead. You will need all that sugar because increasingly Thanksgiving has become just another shopping day, which means retail worker drones like you will be hustling in the aisles and at the registers. Black Friday is giving way to Black Thursday.

With so many scuzzy retail chains out there, it is hard to pick from the worst of the worst, but any retail chain that is open on Thanksgiving is, by definition, among the worst of the worst. These include Wal-Mart (opening at 9 PM), KMart (open Thanksgiving for the last ten years straight), Old Navy and BooksaMillion. I know about BooksaMillion personally because my daughter had the misfortune to work there for a year. There they were on Thanksgiving at 9 AM as usual, fluorescent lights all ablaze and the parking lot virtually empty. This was of course some years ago. Today, increasingly you are thinking that even on Thanksgiving there will be some stores open at the local shopping center. If it’s BooksAMillion, you can practically count on it. And if you are an employee working on Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner means bringing some substandard turkey loaf to heat up in the microwave in the break room during your doubtless too short break.

Here is what should be open on Thanksgiving: gas stations, hospitals, hotels, homeless shelters, police and fire stations and that’s about it. You say you need to run down to the local Food Lion on turkey day because you need an extra jar of turkey gravy? Too bad for you. You should have thought about that by Wednesday night. It’s a holiday, stupid! It’s a day to spend with people who are important to you or, if you prefer, a day to vegetate at home with a bad turkey loaf roasted in your oven in an aluminum container, instant potatoes from a box and some gravy from a package. If you can muster any such feelings because if you work retail, it’s a day to be thankful. Instead you may be at some register somewhere or prepping the store for opening at midnight on Black Friday. See, only privileged people with money to buy stuff get to have holidays. For retail workers, be glad to have a crappy job. At least you have flexible hours, if flexible means hours at the convenience of your employer.

Perhaps as part of any reforms coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one of them will be laws to redefine holidays so they resemble, well, holidays. Imagine how much more blissful we could be if we all knew that on a holiday we would get the day off (or at least be compensated extra for it if we could not). Imagine if most holidays were like Christmas (which is doubtless itself under retail attack) and life just sort of stopped. Who could not use more mental health days? I know I could, but from my retail days I know who could use them even more: the millions of suffering, hassled, stressed and underpaid retail workers of our country. I say we need a law to shut down all retail stores on Thanksgiving by law. Give everyone including our retail workers a real holiday with pay on Thanksgiving.

A primer on restroom etiquette

The Thinker by Rodin

Yep, I am still regularly browsing People of Wal-Mart. I keep hoping they will get a better class of clientele, but evidence on the site suggests just the opposite is true.

Lately there has been a trend to show pictures of Wal-Mart customers who apparently have not mastered the art of using toilets. Sometimes there is something like toilet paper hanging out of their shorts. More often someone just made a mess down there and it is leaking through their underwear (if they have any) for the whole world to see. Sometimes it seems like they are proud of themselves and are showing off.

My biggest Wal-Mart fear is being forced to use their restrooms. Perhaps they keep them nice and clean, but it doesn’t matter. I am still leery about sharing a restroom with any of their customers, even using one of those sanitary toilet covers, should I need a stall. However, there is plenty of evidence that Wal-Mart customers can be found in public restrooms near you. Maybe that’s why I avoid them. Unfortunately, sometimes you have no alterative.

The good thing about public restrooms (aside from taking care of a chronic biological necessity) is that they are the most egalitarian place people of the same sex can congregate. The exception, of course, is executive washrooms, which, needless to say, I’m not important enough to have access to. It doesn’t matter what your age, race or income level is: we all have to excrete. I have to assume though that some people, particularly of my gender, never quite got their potty training certificate. Or maybe they figured potty rules apply only at home, although I doubt that. Anyone who can’t do their business properly in a public restroom probably doesn’t even know how to use a flush toilet. At least I hope that is the case, because it is the best thing I can say about them.

Whether you are in a stall or in front of a urinal when you are done you should religiously flush the toilet! There is this thing called a handle, which if you press down on causes a pneumatic water cycle that places your body waste into the sewage system and refreshes the commodes with clean water. It’s amazing and incredible but it works. I am constantly amazed by people who apparently haven’t mastered this important skill, or, more likely, just don’t give a crap (literally) to take two seconds to flush. Are they filled with passive aggressive rage?

Once you have mastered the business of pressing down on the handle, you might want to check to see if the toilet did its job. I get the feeling that some of you have bowel movements maybe once a week. Regardless, please assume that the next person in the stall does not want to have a close encounter with your bowels. If this happens to you please wait for the cycle to finish and flush again. Repeat until all your detritus is gone and the water is clear.

Guys, if you have to tinkle, using the urinal is definitely preferred. However, if they are all in use or you prefer the privacy of a stall, don’t stand up to pee into it. This is because, just like at home, your aim is unlikely to be perfect. Unlike at home, where your wife or significant others will bitch at you for missing, no one will complain if you do this in a public stall, at least not until after you have left the crime scene. The rule is simple, guys: if you are going to pee into a toilet in a stall, sit down to do your business. (Hint: drop your pants and underpants first!) When I encounter your residue, I recoil and immediately search for another cleaner stall, if possible. If you must pee standing up in a stall, have the decency to raise the toilet seat first so you don’t dribble on it for the next occupant and put it back down when done. Thank you very much.

Here’s another tip: every restroom I have ever been in, except in third world countries, have wash basins with soap and either paper towels or a hot air blowing machine. Use them to dry your newly clean hands and, if necessary, your stall.

It does not say so on the door, but restrooms are not places to engage in conversation, unless it’s an “excuse me” when encountering someone entering or exiting. Ideally, you want to be anonymous throughout the period. It is especially not (Larry Craig, take note) a place to find new romantic or sexual partners of the same sex. Save that for Craigslist. Fortunately, perhaps due to my strong anti Gay-dar, I have not encountered any hand gropers yet. I can assure you that if it happens and I have something sharp on me, that person will subsequently be bleeding and possibly missing some phalanges. You have been warned!

Neither is a restroom a place to have delayed social conversations via etchings on the restroom or stall wall. I don’t care about your opinions about gays or “faggots” as you call them. Similarly, I am not interested in dialing the phone number scrawled on the stall wall for some “head”. No doubt she is actually a he, in fact, probably you.

Certain bodily noises are inevitable when you are doing your business, but please to the maximum extent possible don’t make it my business too. I don’t want to hear any more flatulence than is absolutely required, and I sure don’t want to hear it accompanied by verbal expressions of how you are feeling. Ideally ventilation fans would mask most noises. Nor should you linger too long. Sometimes our plumbing wants to go slow, but bathroom etiquette demands that you minimize your time doing your business. Besides, someone with a more chronic need than you may be waiting anxiously with their knees tightly crossed.

That’s pretty much it. In short, using a restroom is not an excuse to revert to being a caveman or a brute. If you still have questions, Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills, California has a helpful video. (Hint: in real life, please lower your pants and underwear first.)

Wal-Mart: not as evil lately

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in 2003, I opined that Wal-Mart is evil. I haven’t shopped at a Wal-Mart since the early 2000s. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. Granted, it is hardly the only retail establishment that treats its employees like dirt. Sadly most retailers will not pay their employees a living wage, and that often includes the managers. So Wal-Mart is not unique, but it is a particularly egregious offender as well as omnipresent. So it deserves to be singled out for my scorn.

I keep hoping that Wal-Mart executives will make some catastrophic mistakes and be driven out of business. This seems unlikely to happen, even if their growth in the United States has leveled off. This may be due in part to the recession, but is just as likely because they have saturated the market. Wal-Mart’s newest territories to conquer include the inner cities, such as here in Washington D.C. Their big box stores will have to be downsized to fit into these denser communities. Wal-Mart is rarely welcomed. Many cities are doing their best to dissuade Wal-Mart from coming.

Wal-Mart employees are still getting screwed, which is infuriating but no longer news. However, Wal-Mart’s prices have not been quite as low recently. Part of it reflects increased costs. Their supply chains have been squeezed about as tight as they can be squeezed. Since food is a larger part of their business, rising food prices has also squeezed them. Their not quite-as-low-prices may also reflect a reality that they have squeezed out most of the competition, which gives them the freedom to raise prices and consequently raise profits. However, their profits are reasonably flat or falling, at least here in the United States.

Wal-Mart rarely has altruistic motives, which is why their recent announcement made in conjunction with First Lady Michele Obama made headlines and captured my attention. Wal-Mart is beginning a multiyear campaign to improve the healthfulness of its food. Obama, who has made improving childhood nutrition her special project, was effusive with praise for the retailer for this new direction.

Wal-Mart’s motives are at best only tangentially altruistic. Its executives may be evil, but they have discerned that this health food trend is one they can ride toward increased profitability. In one of these strange quirks of fate, by selling healthier food not only will they increase their profits but they also may well move the entire moribund food market away from unhealthy processed foods toward foods that, while probably not healthy, are at least healthier. This might actually be palatable to Republicans as well, who would certainly object if the government required it.

This matters because Wal-Mart has become the nation’s de facto supermarket, in addition to being the nation’s largest retailer. When a retailer has as much influence on the market as Wal-Mart has, our food companies are forced to tow the line. This should mean that processed foods that Wal-Mart will sell, including presumably most of its store brands, will have fewer calories, less fat, less sugar and will be made from fewer and more natural ingredients. Perhaps there will also be fewer additives in the food as well. Most likely, once our tongues get over the shock, we will realize these healthier products also taste a lot better.

The food that Wal-Mart sells may begin to resemble, well, food. My late mother, if she were to shop at a Wal-Mart today, would probably question whether much of the food on its shelves even qualified as food. Food should be healthy to eat. Much of the crap that we consume these days simply is not. The good parts like fiber and vitamins are the first things bleached out, and are replaced with sugars, salts, fats and combinations of artificial chemicals. They are designed to make us consume more of them but are nutritionally empty, if not actually harmful to us.

In many parts of the country, you buy food at Wal-Mart because there are really no other alternatives. This includes inner cities, where if you can find vegetables they are probably only at liquor stores. These food deserts result in limited or no places to buy healthy food, which results in people living off fast food. In many communities, the Wal-Mart is your only grocer, or other food stores are prohibitively expensive. So as Wal-Mart introduces these areas to healthier food, it is good for everyone, including Wal-Mart’s bottom line. Even their employees, who often have to buy food where they shop, will benefit. If your diet consists of a preponderance of unhealthy foods like Pop Tarts, anything you eat that is healthier will leave you feeling better and (doubtless this has not escaped Wal-Mart’s attention) more alert, and hence more productive.

I don’t seem to have the power to kill Wal-Mart. It seems to be here to stay, whether I like it or not. I still do not plan to shop there, but given the oceans of obese people who frequent Wal-Marts (documented on the People of Wal-Mart site), they may begin to feel healthier. Perhaps they will even lose some weight and live longer and healthier lives. This would be good. Perhaps this is the start of Americans discovering real food again, and the beginning of the end of our unhealthy obsession with processed Frankenfood.

Danger: Wal-Mart Customer!

The Thinker by Rodin

How ugly can retail get? There are uglier chain stores out there than Wal-Mart, but not a whole lot. Perhaps a Marshalls. Or a Dollar General. Wal-Mart is likely to remain forever the epitome of the gargantuan box store. It comes replete with lots of garish florescent lighting, narrow aisles and overflowing merchandise.

As far as us shoppers, apparently, I am not the only one to notice a certain lack of standards among many of Wal-Mart customers. Way back in 2003 I wrote about Wal-Mart:

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.

It’s not that finding stylish customers is impossible at a Wal-Mart, it’s just unlikely to be someone other than Sarah Palin. Of course, most of us avoid dressing stylishly unless the occasion commands it, which Wal-Mart certainly does not. Still, a certain amount of decorum is expected anywhere you shop, isn’t it? It’s hard to find a store, except perhaps along a beach, that does not require you wear shoes and a shirt. Apparently, it was not my imagination. We really do need to add the ubiquitous Wal-Mart to this list. In pursuit of the almighty dollar, it appears that Wal-Mart will let virtually anyone in the store. I guess I have to give the company an A for being egalitarian, but frankly part of the reason I avoid Wal-Mart is because some of their customers frighten me (and I’m 6’2”). When I see some of these types on the street, I hurriedly cross over to the other sidewalk to avoid them. In a Wal-Mart, they tend to be in your face whether you like it or not.

Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer
Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer

The theme of PeopleofWalmart.com seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of these eccentrics; celebrate them.” Wal-Mart customers much braver than me are apparently snapping unflattering and amazing pictures of other Wal-Mart customers and putting them on this web site for us to gawk at. While I am unlikely to ever shop again at a Wal-Mart unless they start paying their employees a living wage, I can at least observe the Wal-Mart customer spectacle from the safety of my computer.

Frankly, I spend much of my time on PeopleofWalmart.com guiltily laughing. The site is hilarious as a nadir of bad fashion. I say this as someone who has almost no sense of fashion. I frequently end up wearing clothes that, in the opinion of my spouse, are mismatched or uncoordinated. So when someone with as little fashion sense as me finds himself appalled by someone else’s dress that truly says something.

On PeopleofWalmart.com you can see many examples of horrendous fashion every day. Just a couple of these photos would make Robin Givhan (the Washington Post fashion editor) go blind. Truly, in your wildest imagination, you could never dream up some of the combinations of clothes that actual people are wearing at your local Wal-Marts. Some of their clothes are so bizarre, so Technicolor and so haplessly uncoordinated that even a hippie would recoil.

See the same person wear too much clothing on one part of their body and too little on another. View guys and ladies with plumbers’ cracks big enough to insert your local telephone book.  See people wearing animal skins mixed with garish polyesters. See people wearing florescent colored clothes with pastels. See bare feet. G strings. View ladies in swimsuits that leave nothing to the imagination. See people wearing what I hope are bizarre costumes rather than their regular clothes. See people who look like five minutes earlier they were cleaning shit out of a public sewer. See people who make Swamp Thing look fashionable. How I wish I were making this stuff up, but I am not. Go see for yourself. These kinds of pictures leave me wide eyed with my mouth hung open somewhere near the floor. It is often followed shortly thereafter by bombastic laughter and tears coming out of the corner of my eyes. Could it really be that we share the same forty-six chromosomes? Just the idea is frightening.

At the same time, I feel sad by the overwhelming number of beyond morbidly obese people in these pictures, many of whom are completely happy to let it all hang out. Huge rolls of fat bulge out from jeans five sizes too small for them. See women with fat on their backs so enormous that it dwarfs their already ample bosoms and puffs out around their narrow halter-tops as if they were the Pillsbury Dough Boy. You wonder how some of these people can even walk.

Doubtless, they are disproportionately captured on digital film but the fact that they exist at all, let alone in these numbers, is appalling. The site does suggest something that may now be the norm in Wal-Mart: the obese make up a plurality, if not a majority of their customers. Granted with the majority of Americans now either overweight or obese, they may well be characteristic of the average American in the 21st century. If so, you have to ask, what are we doing to ourselves? The evidence on PeopleofWalmart.com suggests we have been actively engaged in mass gluttony of the most egregious kind.

Perhaps this is also why I cannot be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart. If I can avoid it, I don’t want to face this unpleasant truth about my fellow Americans. Wal-Mart in general and the many examples of its customers captured on PeopleofWalmart.com make me scared for my country’s future. I hope I am wrong, but America has never seemed so infirmed, so fat, so bizarre and so dysfunctional. Everything I see in and around the Wal-Marts of America tell me that America is not just off the right track, but our locomotive has careened into the river and the water is rapidly rising up to our necks. Only most of us cannot see it.

So perhaps I laugh not only because of some personal character defect but because it is the safer alternative. What I really want to do: scream in shock, horror and pain at this daily evidence of a national problem that seems too big to solve. We appear to be destroying ourselves, our country and our national character. There is plenty of evidence available at your local Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart employee becomes a martyr for greed

The Thinker by Rodin

Sometimes a news story epitomizes what is wrong with our society. Sometimes they come in double doses. Two stories in the news have drawn my attention and ire. Both need more press than they have gotten. In today’s post, I concentrate on the first outrage.

Black Friday this year turned black for an unexpected reason. No, it was not black because of the crappy economy. This Black Friday crazed shoppers at Wal-Mart’s Valley Stream store on Long Island trampled a store employee to death. A huge crowd estimated at two thousand pushed down the store’s doors at its early 5 a.m. opening time, trampling to death Jdimytai Damour, a Wal-Mart employee who had started only a week earlier. According to news reports, the door was crushed like an accordion by the weight of the crowd. Shoppers intent on snatching bargains poured through its doors, giving no thought to the man they were trampling and asphyxiating in the process. At least four others were injured in the melee, including one pregnant woman.

Wal-Mart was hardly the only retailer this Black Friday offering a limited stock of highly desired items at less than their cost. Yet, somehow if this tragic situation was fated to occur, you knew that it would happen at a Wal-Mart. After all, their motto has been “Low Prices, Always”. Clearly, employee safety is not high on their agenda, probably because it inconveniently gets in the way of profitability and lower prices. Generating excitement and sales were their top priorities and they certainly succeeded at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. A Wal-Mart spokesman called it an “unfortunate event”. Wal-Mart customers certainly indicated their feelings by their actions. They even kept shopping and hollered protests when an announcement went out over the store public address system that the store was closing because a man had been killed by their stampede. Apparently, saving money was more important than a tragic and unnecessary death unfolding around them. (Not to worry, the store only closed for a few hours. After all, profits are more important than people.)

Damour’s family is likely to sue, but I bet that within Damour’s employment contract is a provision exempting Wal-Mart from lawsuits like these. Morons obviously are not managing Wal-Mart, just heartless bastards that see retail workers as interchangeable and expendable. So Wal-Mart likely has their lawyers make sure their liability is limited even in these sorts of situations. Last that I heard, Wal-Mart was not a proactive enough company to do obvious things like put up a rope line in front of the store. Nor apparently is building reinforced doors important since that would mean, like, spending more money. However, the company is proactive enough to purchase life insurance for their employees. This life insurance though does not go to the family of deceased employees in their care, but into Wal-Mart’s coffers instead.

Pretty much everyone associated with this death should feel ashamed. Every shopper who rushed into the store, even if they did not actually trample on Damour’s body, should feel ashamed for contributing to the situation. How could they put the lust for stuff ahead of a human life?

I doubt though that anyone is feeling any shame. Chalk up one death of another interchangeable retail worker to the cost of doing business in the 21st century. The important thing is that Wal-Mart remains profitable! People with consciences, like me, figure the store manager should resign, both for not protecting this employee adequately and for not taking all steps to ensure that the crowds were controlled. Yet, the store manager reopened the store just a few hours after Damour’s death. I guess when you work for an amoral company, you are hired in part because you are amoral. Even if the store manager wanted to keep the store closed, the corporate office was probably on the phone demanding that the store reopen immediately!

Wal-Mart has pricey enough lawyers so that they will probably successfully dodge any financial judgment against them. They probably feel they suffered enough by closing the store for a couple hours on Black Friday of all days. Much more likely, Wal-Mart simply doesn’t care. The trampling to death of an employee, however regrettable, is the price someone else must pay to make sure they have “Low Prices, Always”. Consumers seem unmoved by this incident too. Nearly alone among major retailers, Wal-Mart is showing an increase in sales this holiday season.

Back in 2003, I wrote this post on the reasons why I will not shop at Wal-Mart. I disparaged not just the company for its contemptuous attitudes towards its employees, but also its customers. At the time, the post drew some heat (several nasty comments were removed) but it appears, if anything, that I did not hold its management or its customers in low enough esteem. Back in 2003, I said I would never shop in a Wal-Mart again until they treated their employees right. It looks like that date, which seemed far off even back then, has receded even further.

If there were a big box retail workers union (and god forbid Wal-Mart permit anything like that) the union should fund a national shrine to memorialize Jdimytai Damour and all the other vastly underpaid human beings who make American retail commerce possible. Damour is likely not the first martyr for the cause, but his death should be memorialized anyhow. If I had the power, I would require the monument to be in placed right in front of the main entrance. It would have huge lights shining on it. Damour’s name and date of death would be prominently inscribed with the words, “Damour died so that you could have Low Prices, Always”.

Instead, this tragic and preventable death is likely to be just a footnote. In a year or two, only a few of us cranks will even remember it at all. Meanwhile, the amoral Wal-Mart Corporation will of course be laughing all the way to the bank, its stockholders will be delighted in their weighty dividends and its customers will be thrilled at those low, low prices.