December 18, 2003

CHICAGO (Dec. 15)—Ever see those commercials that Wal-Mart runs on TV? Notice how they always use wholesome, middle-Americans to suggest that shopping at Wal-Mart is the “American” thing to do?”

But while Wal-Mart wraps itself in the flag to create a false patriotic image, its everyday business practices reveal a multi-national mega-corporation that damages families and erodes the economic foundation and the tax base of entire communities.

“Being American used to mean dealing with others in a spirit of fair play,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “But fair play is not what communities, local businesses or employees get from the Wal-Mart. After coming into a community and gaining massive tax breaks from cities who believe the illusion that they are creating new jobs and tax revenues, Wal-Mart forces locally owned and regional stores—the real backbone of America—out of business. The loss of those businesses deprives the community of the tax revenues they formerly provided and the strong salaries that sustained local families.

“Meanwhile, Wal-Mart wages are some of the lowest in the retail industry,” Szabo said. “Families cannot be sustained on minimum-wages. And while Wal-Mart ostensibly offers a ‘healthcare plan’ to its employees, the co-pay is so high than only managers can afford to participate. To join the health plan workers would have to leave most of their paycheck in the store.”

Szabo said Wal-Mart’s anti-worker policies also extend to workers not directly employed by the company.

“Several months ago Wal-Mart was cited by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization authorities for contracting out its janitorial work to boiler-room firms that employed illegal immigrants in an effort to depress wages,” Szabo said. “Some of these firms paid their migrant janitors as little as $200 a week—and then withheld some of the paychecks on technicalities.”

Finally, Szabo said, Wal-Mart has forced its low-wage policy on thousands of overseas workers who toil in unregulated Third World sweatshops.

“We believe Wal-Mart to be the largest single importer of sweat-shop merchandise in the world,” he said. “Reports indicate that many of their products are made by underage girls in the tropics who work 12-hour shifts in poorly ventilated sheds and sleep in a company dormitory because they can’t afford or aren’t allowed their own housing.”

Now contrast Wal-Mart’s treatment of its employees with that of its rival Sears, Roebuck & Co. Sears has been going the “extra mile” for employees who have been called up to active military duty with their armed-forces reserve units assigned to Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Under the law, companies must hold open the jobs of employees called up to active duty, but usually the employee loses the difference in pay and loses benefits when not working,” Szabo said.

“But not at Sears. In a genuine patriotic effort, Sears is voluntarily making up the difference between the employee’s military pay and what he or she would have earned if still on the job. And Sears is maintaining all of the absent employee’s benefits, including medical insurance and bonus payments, for up to two years.

“That has to be relieving those employees and their families of tremendous anxiety,” Szabo said. “We’ve all heard and read about the hardships suffered by the families of activated reservists who have taken reductions in their salary and benefits. The absence of a parent and provider is compounded by serious financial sacrifice and deep anxiety about the family’s future. Sears’ attempt to alleviate that kind of hardship shows real respect for its employees.”

It also shows something else, Szabo said.

“It shows real patriotism, not the false, made-for-TV-flag-waving kind,” he said. “Sears has chosen to share in the sacrifices made by its employees. What a truly American company.”