For the last eight years, my brother-in-law has been one of the 1.2 million Americans who depend on paychecks from Wal-Mart. Ditto for the frail, aging mother of my significant other, a woman who has put in 10 years in the garden section of her store, where she still routinely does heavy lifting and spends her days on her feet.
It's easy to hate Wal-Mart. The stores are a blight on suburban landscapes, they force small businesses to close, they pay their workers badly. But the Wal-Mart employees I know take pride in their labors, despite how poorly they're compensated.
For example, my brother-in-law recently completed a difficult, four-month management training regimen. He has only a high school diploma, and the math proficiency requirements were difficult for him. Yet he would come home from work, sit down at the dining room table and hit the books, sometimes with the help of my college-educated sister. When I last visited, his management certificate was framed and prominently displayed on the mantelpiece.
I'm proud of my brother-in-law, but I must say that I haven't actually seen him on my last couple of visits, because he's either been working or sleeping. Right now it looks like I won't be seeing him for Thanksgiving, because he'll be preparing for the fabled "biggest shopping day of the year," known within the company as "the blitz."
Last time I visited, I very gingerly pressed my sister on the number of hours her husband is working for his new managerial salary. It sounded like well over 50, but my sister interrupted my inquiry by saying, "He likes his job."
I sometimes detect some ugly snobbery at work in the fashionable disdain for Wal-Mart, an elitism that is unseemly. Like most people I know, I'll shun Wal-Mart (or at least apologize loudly to anyone who catches me shopping there) but I'll happily give my money to Target or Home Depot or PetSmart, stores that all work on business plans similar to Wal-Mart's.
The last time I shopped at Wal-Mart (for $7.69 worth of Halloween finery), I noticed one particular worker who seemed to be, in conventional terms, only marginally employable. Well past the midpoint of what seemed to have been a hard life, she had a mouth full of bad teeth and shabby clothes underneath her regulation blue smock. Yet Wal-Mart has a place for her, if not a living wage.
I think that the full-frontal assault on Wal-Mart--while justified in highlighting the ways in which the store exploits its workers--carries the risk of pitting liberal activists against the poor. Inevitably, the professional operatives now working to spin Wal-Mart's image will employ this wedge strategy.
To its credit, however, the activist group Wal-Mart Watch is aggressively courting Wal-Mart workers and encouraging them to expect compensation and benefits that are commensurate with their toil. On a broader front, we all need to find ways to prevent Wal-Mart from punishing workers who utter even a murmur about organizing themselves.
The behemoth called Wal-Mart could have powerful, self-interested motives to help improve the quality of life in America. A recently leaked internal memo revealed that company managers are concerned about the escalating costs of labor and benefits. This is remarkable when one considers just how cheap the labor is, and just how paltry the benefits, and it shows just how much has to be sacrificed on the altar of low, low prices.
However, the fact that the nation's largest private employer can't afford their crappy health benefits smells like an opportunity. Why not find a strategy to put Wal-Mart's extraordinary financial resources in the service of national health care? It's already been noted that Detroit automakers are looking longingly at the well-insured Canadian workforce to the north.
If Wal-Mart, GM and other major corporations have better angels, perhaps they could be persuaded that supporting national health insurance would be both good for business and good for the country. It certainly would help my brother-in-law, my sister and their two small children.