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Wages, not welfare

Counting the Cost

Julianne Malveaux | 11/27/2013, midnight

For the past year, an organization called OUR Walmart, has protested, raised questions and asked their employer, one of the nation’s largest, to treat them fairly.

They have asked for better wages, more full-time (as opposed to part-time) hours, and for the opportunity to earn benefits. Walmart has responded with well-timed publicity moves. They will allow same sex couples health insurance and other benefits, but only if someone is working full time (at least a third of Walmart workers are employed part time). There were headlines about the same-sex marriage benefit, but none about the low wages that many receive, and the hurdles they must clear to get the healthcare benefit.

The average Walmart worker earns $8.81 an hour; but too many earn the minimum wage, even as they work part time. According to Walmart’s CEO, at least half of its workers earn less than $25,000 a year, not enough to live on in a city with living costs as high as those in Washington, D.C. Yet, Walmart threatened to withdraw from agreements they had with the District of Columbia, when the City Council said they would require a $12.50 minimum wage from “big box” stores. With the District caught between a rock and a hard place–no jobs or low-paid jobs–they blinked and went with the notion that any job is better than no job.

The District will end up subsidizing those workers who can’t make it with their Walmart pay. They’ll be the ones lining up for food stamps, subsidized housing, and other income-enhancing programs.

No wonder Walmart wants to help workers during this holiday season.

In Canton, Ohio, and in other Walmart stores, managers are asking workers to donate food so that their coworkers may have a pleasant Thanksgiving. If Walmart paid associates enough, workers would not have to transfer food and opportunities to their colleagues. Indeed, since most Walmart stores have a food section, why wouldn’t the company offer their lowest paid workers a gift certificate for $100 or so.

Or, here’s a thought. Why not just pay workers so they don’t need to seek supplements during the holidays.

Walmart doesn’t want to pay people what they are worth, just what they can get away with. Walmart chooses to suppress wages, so they have also made a choice to encourage some workers to provide token assistance for their coworkers who are not well paid. Walmart has put the onus of fair pay on workers helping each other, not the company helping its workers. While many Walmart employees will be concerned enough about their colleagues to contribute, they must also ask why a food drive is necessary. In asking that question, they might also ask what impact food stamp cuts will have on their colleagues.

There is nothing magic about the $12.50 an hour wage. Some jurisdictions will push their minimum wage to $11 an hour and others will ask for more. Many retail workers say that a $15 an hour wage is the least that they can survive on.