Company of Contradictions

Walmart Has Everything, Including Our Ambivalence

America has an obsession with Walmart. At Walmart, your dollar has 10-15% more value than at the local neighborhood discount chains and corporate supermarkets. Walmart has this luxury because it is huge—their stores are huge, their selection is huge, their profit is huge, their business strategy is huge, and they are the largest employer in 20 states (and the largest private employer in Mexico, by the way).

In 2003, Fortune magazine named Walmart as the most admired company in the United States, but Walmart is also a company of contradictions.

The bright side
We hail Walmart as the company that cuts us a good deal, gives purchasing power to low-income earners and small businesses, hires the disabled and elderly, and maintains a healthy, happy workforce.

Luanne works 55 hours a week in front of the U-scan terminal at Kroger, a Southern grocery store chain. “It’s a good place to work, but if I don’t get a break from working so many hours after my next raise, I’m leaving to work at Walmart.”

“I heard Walmart plans to build 40 Supercenters in California over the next year,” said Chris White, a carpenter living on the streets while he tries to get his life together. “You know where I’m moving? California. I need work.”

Taking care of your own
Kahlid, a 40-year old male greeted customers on their way out of a Nashville Walmart Supercenter. He loves working at Walmart. “Walmart offers a low price to every customer and we have everything.” After working four years in the produce department, repetitive motion injured Kahlid’s neck. Walmart’s health insurance covered all costs, and, after recovering from surgery, management moved Kahlid to a greeter position where he could comfortably work.

This is Marijana’s third year at Walmart. This 20-something earns $8.30 an hour and is putting herself through massage school. “Its not bad—I show up, do what I’m told, and go home.”

The dark side

But there is a reason why I myself and others have sold their Walmart stock (which has been steadily earning for the past ten or so years despite economic fluctuation), and why I stopped at Target to buy the notepad I used to interview the Walmart employees.

Although Walmart’s net profit is $8 billion a year and growing, 50% of Walmart employees are said to earn less than the federal annual poverty income for a family of three ($15,060). “I don’t feel like I’m being paid a fair wage,” says Anthony a white male in his late 20’s who supports a wife and child.

Walmart moves into small towns and the word is that its competitive prices destroy small business. This is ironic because Sam’s Club, a Walmart-owned bulk retailer and grocery, claims that helping small businesses succeed is one of its goals.

The labor report

Because discount competitors have to lower prices in order to compete with Walmart, they abandon their domestic operations and move them to countries with cheap labor, eliminating manufacturing jobs in the United States. A November 15, 2003 New York Times article says, “Supermarkets are forced to lower fees to compete with Walmart, a non-union, low-wage employer. This is turning middle-class service jobs into poverty level ones.” That’s not all.

Walmart is the leading importer of Chinese-made (which is often said to mean, sweatshop-made) goods in the world; it is accused of gender discrimination in hiring practices; and, since 1995, the government has filed 60 complaints of illegal anti-union activities. Last month, employees charged Walmart with forcing them to work off the clock without pay or breaks. In addition, a grand jury is investigating the use of 250 undocumented immigrant workers to provide overnight cleaning services.

Some associates I spoke to were not as excited about Walmart as the others.

“Supposedly Walmart has an open door policy that invites associate input. I’ve never seen it in action,” says Anthony, “I’ve talked to people who have worked here for 10 to 15 years who haven’t heard of it.”

Comparison shopping
Walmart’s wages may not be fair, but what about Kroger and Target? Why would Luanne move from Kroger where she became a shift manager in less than a year and gets time and a half for overtime to Walmart?

Comparing on…



Beginning hourly wage $5.15 or $5.20 $7.00 and up
Weekly income $206 $280
Yearly income before taxes $10,712 $14,560
Minus Fees $390/year for union $1950/yr for health insurance
Take home income before tax $10,322 $12,610
Raise after 30 days & every 6-9 mos 30¢ every yr
Health Insurance $200 deductible full coverage

I do have to make ends meet, but, at
the same time, I want to make conscientious decisions. I am not sure I feel comfortable shopping at Walmart. With 50% of the discount retail market and a growing chunk of the grocery market, when is Walmart too much? When it threatens local small businesses? When it appears to disregard the rights of workers in factories abroad?

In the end, we decide where we want to spend our money.