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Time for a Living Wage

Target — The Emperor Has No Clothes!

by RALPH NADER

What’s the difference between Target and Walmart? Many liberal-minded people bristle at the name Walmart and think of its well-documented history of low wages, poor employee treatment and its devastating effect on many small businesses and communities across America. Target, on the other hand, has managed to avoid much of the negativity associated with the Walmart brand. Target has instead tried to cultivate an image as the socially-conscious alternative to Walmart’s evil big box retail empire — it perpetuates the notion that it treats its workers better and provides higher quality goods and services, all without sinking to the same harsh lows as its Bentonville-based competitor. Many so-called “blue states” welcome Target with open arms while shunning Walmart for their anti-worker practices.

So this begs the question — is Target really any better? Is this line of thinking justified?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Target’s record when it comes to workers is about the same. Look past the positive PR and one will find that Target pays many of its workers unconscionably low wages — Target is the fourth largest low-wage employer in the country. Furthermore, the company is anti-union — they require employees to watch anti-union propaganda and just last year Target was found to have intimidated workers and violated federal labor laws. Kind of reminds you of another corporate big box retail chain, doesn’t it?

Target now employs over 340,000 workers in the United States. According to IBIS World, an independent market research company, the average wage for Target employees is in fact less than the average wage for workers at Walmart. And while many of these Target “team members” are paid a poverty-level wage, the compensation package of Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel amounted to over $28 million in 2012. That’s almost $14,000 per hour! Shockingly, that’s even more than Walmart’s CEO, Mike Duke, who makes approximately $11,000 per hour. This type of inflated executive salary has become the troubling norm in greed-dominated Big Corporations, where CEOs have long taken advantage of cheap labor while achieving windfall profits.

Many low-wage workers at these large, profitable corporate chains are forced to resort to public assistance programs to provide for their families with necessities like food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and the earned income tax credit. So taxpayers end up subsidizing the poverty wages of profitable companies like Target and Walmart. Arecent report from the Democratic staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce indicated that a single Walmart Supercenter store in Wisconsin could cost taxpayers “anywhere from $904,542 to nearly $1.75 million per year.” In states where data has been made public about which businesses employ the most public assistance dependent workers, Walmart often tops the list. However, Target is never that far behind.

On October 17th, I wrote a letter to Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel detailing many of these points. I told him: “If Target wants to live up to the image you have carefully crafted, you must do something to show your dedication to being a more worker responsible choice than Walmart: By supporting an increase in the minimum wage.”

Walmart’s President Bill Simon responded to a similar letter earlier this year stating that Walmart intended to review the various minimum wage raise bills in Congress and would consider their position. At least they responded–as of this writing, mum’s the word from the Target Executive Offices.

Thirty million workers make less today than workers made in 1968, inflation adjusted, despite a doubling in both worker productivity and the cost of living. Raising the minimum wage wouldn’t only benefit the underpaid workers of these and other big businesses, but even the companies themselves. Numerous studies demonstrate that a minimum wage increase would have a negligible impact on the prices Target or Walmart could offer or their substantial profits. The marginal extra cost is outweighed by the potential for significant benefits — especially when you consider the fact that many minimum wage earners would inevitably spend some their extra income at their workplace, be it Target, Walmart or elsewhere.

Going further, imagine if some of these corporate CEOs like Mr. Duke and Mr. Steinhafel were to offer to cut their immense salary in half in solidarity with their many long-suffering workers? It would be a bold move in highlighting the disturbing trend of income inequality. If you agree, contact them at 479-273-4000 (Walmart) and 612-304-6073 (Target).

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once famously said in a “fireside chat” in 1938: “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.” How startlingly prophetic!

It’s time for Target bosses to support a 21st century increase in the minimum wage. Thirty million impoverished American workers and their families should not and cannot wait any longer.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.