Tag Archives: Walmart

When Retailers Shop the Season Doesn’t End at Christmas

Co-written with Catherine Ruetschlin, Senior Policy Analyst at Demos.

Unfortunately for voters, the $3.7 billion spent over the most recent election cycle did not come with a gift receipt. Despite being rung up as the most expensive midterm in US history, nearly two-thirds of Americans sat out the election—the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years. Those who didn’t turn-out were disproportionately low-income people, who are increasingly shut out of the political process. It makes sense to see growing disillusionment with politics alongside massive outside spending, since the interests of ultra-wealthy donors are unlikely to reflect the experiences of most citizens. On issues like the minimum wage, the divergence can be stark. That is one reason why low-wage retail workers are making their case for better working conditions in big-box parking lots for the third straight year of Black Friday strikes. They need a public forum on the Walmart economy, and big-box retail took the last one on the shelf.

In our recent paper, Retail Politics: How America’s Big-Box Retailers Turn Their Economic Power into Political Influence, we found that the six largest big-box retailers in the US spent $30 million on campaign contributions and lobbying during the latest election cycle—that’s six times more than they spent in 2000. Walmart and Home Depot, in particular, rank among the top campaign spenders in the nation. And this spending is not like consumption spending on, say, some cheap imported merchandise, it is an investment with real returns.

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Political spending of big business is as much about flooding the process with friendly faces as it is about establishing access once the election is over. The campaign and committee donations of wealthy interests first fill the playing field with candidates who share their priorities, and then elevate the issues they care about most. Over time, big-box retailers have supported Republicans over Democrats by a clear margin of 2-to1. But in the 2014 cycle these companies spent their political dollars widely, giving on both sides of the aisle—and even donating to opposing candidates in contested races.

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This campaign spending combines with millions of dollars in lobbying to allow those with the fattest wallets to shape the country’s political agenda. As a result, the small population of affluent Americans sees their priorities reflected in our legislative objectives, even when the majority of the country disagrees with their preferences. For example, taxes were the most frequently lobbied issue by big-box retailers in 2014 by a large margin. This legislative area has proven lucrative for business in the past—experts in corporate strategy research show that a 1 percent increase in businesses lobbying expenditures yields a lower effective tax rate of between 0.5 and 1.6 percent for the firm. Yet when there is conflict between big corporations and other interests over policy change, policy sides with big business lobbyists the vast majority of the time.

Meanwhile, the increase in big-box retail’s political spending occurred at the same time that the most important lobby for workers floundered. Previous research by our organization, Demos, has found that unions are the only interest group that consistently lobbies in the interests of average Americans. However, data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that business interests outspend unions 15 to 1. The democratic chorus in Washington has shifted from one that is broadly in favor of business interests to one virtually devoid of any other voices. It is unsurprising in this context that after an almost two-decade fall, the share of Americans saying that government is “run by a few big interests,” is as high as 70 percent.

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That loss of trust in the equal democratic voice for all Americans also reflects where the money is. According to data from American National Election Studies, unskilled workers  are more   likely to agree that government is run by a few big interests than their white collar and professional peers. That perception is reinforced by the escalating importance of private money in elections, and it shows an intuitive read of the very real problems with democracy, like research that suggests the preferences of average Americans simply won’t change much in Washington.

There are no Black Friday bargains when it comes to political contributions, but there are ways to make small-dollar donations matter more to those on the receiving end. Public finance, federal matching of small donors and effective lobbying regulations can amplify the voices currently drowned out by big money, and begin assuring Americans that democracy is not for sale.

This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post. 

Newest Strike Against Walmart Battles Years of Blatant Disregard for Workers

Walmart has a long history of evading the law, abusing its workers, and suppressing strikes through illegal means. This week, OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect) is beginning the first sustained strike against Walmart, and it’s about time. News of the strike arrives just as Walmart is facing public scrutiny for dumping toxic sludge into California’s sanitary sewers.

Walmart has also been in the news over the last several years for rampant sex discrimination. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Walmart in Dukes v. Walmart, a class action suit filed by Betty Dukes on behalf of one million female employees of Walmart. The court ruled that the employees of Walmart who had been harmed were “too diverse” a group. In May of 2012, 1,975 women filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In fact, one woman from every Walmart region in the country filed a complaint, all alleging pay discrimination. Lawyers hope that these diverse regional suits will be upheld by the Supreme Court.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who spent three months undercover working in Walmart, wrote an essay about the experience for Inequality Matters titled “Earth to Wal Mars,” which she later adapated  for the New York Times. She writes that Walmart puts strong pressure on employees not to unionize, requiring them to attend anti-union lectures where they are warned, “a pro-union vote is likely to lead to a company decision to shut down the factory.” A House Committee on Education and the Workforce report found:

In the last few years, well over 100 unfair labor practice charges have been lodged against Walmart throughout the country… Walmart’s labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize a union to unlawful surveillance, threats, and intimidation of employees who dare to speak out.

And Walmart follows through on its threats. When orkers who cut and packaged meat in Walmart in February 2000 voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, many of their fellow workers nationwide  decided follow suit and vote for unionization. Walmart responded by announcing a decision shift to using pre-packaged meat in the store. The employees had to wait three years before a court ordered Walmart into discussion with the union, a decision that was still in the appeals process in 2006. Walmart stalled, so the employees brought another complaint to the National Labor Board, accusing Walmart of illegal retaliation. The board ruled again in 2009 that Walmart would have to talk to the union. Both sides sat down in early 2009, but to this day no agreement has been reached.

Mother Jones reports that, “In 10 separate cases, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Wal-Mart repeatedly broke the law by interrogating workers, confiscating union literature, and firing union supporters.” In one particularity brutal instance in 1997, Walmart fired four union supporters, “one of whom was beaten by the plant’s police on the day of the 1997 election.” The workers were eventually reinstated—15 years later. In another case, a Walmart store on the verge of unionizing was shut down. Apparently, Walmart would rather close a store than run a unionized shop.

Walmart has also demonstrated a cycle of abuse via unpaid wages. Earlier this year, Walmart had to pay $1.1 million to 845 workers for unpaid wages. Ehrenreich writes ofworkers that were asked to work overtime without compensation, and in 2001 Wal-Mart was ordered to compensate 69,000 workers in Colorado for $50 million in unpaid wages. In 2008, Walmart paid a settlement fee of $54.25 million to workers in Minnesota, then had to settle another lawsuit that spanned the country to the tune of $352 million. The settlement covered 63 separate cases in 42 states. Last year, the Department of Labor ordered Walmart to pay another settlement fee of $4.8 million to 4,500 employees.

Among the meagre compensations alllotted to Walmart employees are health benefits. When Ehrenreich infiltrated Walmart, employees had to pay between $228 -$472 a month to opt into their health plan, which does not cover dependents. Fewer than half of the company’s employees are covered for health. The 2004 House reportfound that between 41 and 46 percent of workers receive health benefits, which is significantly less than the national average of 66 percent. Workers who are covered pay 42 percent of the cost, compared with the 16 percent national average.

Many Walmart employees struggle to pay bills, and an internal document released last year revealed a hideous compensation plan. The document reveals the policy for raises:

“Low-level workers typically start near minimum wage, and have the potential to earn raises of 20 to 40 cents an hour through incremental promotions. Flawless performance merits a 60 cent raise per year under the policy, regardless of how much time an employee has worked for the company …”

Because Walmart workers are so poorly compensated, they are encouraged to apply for food stamps and other welfare benefits at orientation. The effect is to shift costs from businesses to taxpayers. According to the House report: “one 200-person Walmart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year – about $2,103 per employee.”

Walmart settled a lawsuit in 2005 for $11 million for hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.

As if on some sort of perverse mission to violate every U.S. labor law in existence, Walmart has also been fined for using child labor, paid $6 million for discrimination against handicapped people, and threatened workers who file OSHA complaints telling them any fines would be taken from their paychecks.

Overseas, Walmart has come under fire for multiple incidents of child labor use, and continues to decline to compensate victims of the tragedy that occurred in their Bangladesh factories earlier this year.

Given the company’s history, it is not altogether surprising that since OUR Walmart’s inception, Walmart has worked to crush the budding movement. A recent report from American Rights at Work found that as workers have increased their protests and demands—with notable actions like the Black Friday Strike last year—Walmart has retaliated aggressively. The continually disguise their acts of retaliation as routine enforcement of company policy and threaten to fire workers who speak out. OUR Walmart is the most recent attempt to stand up to the corporate bully. OUR Walmart maintains a petition that you can sign, but the most important show of solidarity is to avoid shopping at Walmart and encourage others to join in the boycott. Walmart is trying to ignore the strike, calling it a “publicity stunt,” but if it starts to hurt their bottom line, they’ll probably reconsider.

E-mail Sean: seanadrianmc@gmail.com

This article first appeared on Alternet.org