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Wal-Mart Caught Stealing

Despite all the conjecture and second-guessing, there’s no way to be certain that Iraq and Afghanistan would have turned out much differently had U.S. intelligence been more accurate, had Congress been given more information, had the media been more aggressive, or had Al Gore, instead of George Bush, been seated in the White House on that fateful day in September.  We assume it would, but we can’t be certain.

The same can be said of the Wall Street debacle.  We can speculate all we like as to what might have happened had more “smart” people been doing their jobs and paying attention to the Big Picture, but there’s no way to know for certain what, if anything, would have been done differently to prevent the catastrophe.

History has shown that people in positions of authority—whether in politics or commerce—don’t always act on the evidence.  Sometimes they postpone acting until it’s too late; sometimes they succumb to popular opinion; sometimes they dispute or overrule or nit-pick or simply ignore the so-called “evidence.”  It happens.

But there’s one thing we can be absolutely certain of.  Had the employees of Wal-Mart been represented by a labor union, the company wouldn’t be forced to pay $640 million in back wages to employees who were cheated out of that money.  It never would have happened.  Period.

Things in the workplace fall through the cracks all the time; they get dismissed, put off, overlooked, rescheduled, piled up, mishandled, etc..  But in a union shop, no one—and that means no one—fails to get paid.  You can ask union people to work harder, to work safer, to work quicker; you can ask them pretty much anything, and they’ll do it.  Just don’t ask them to work for free.

Predictably, even though Wal-Mart clearly got caught with its hand in the cookie jar (the settlement was the result of 63 class-action lawsuits), the company has tried to put a happy face on it, claiming that the whole thing was rather “complicated,” and that the incidents in question occurred “a long time ago” and are in no way indicative what the company stands for today.

An employer trying to cut corners by cheating workers out of their pay isn’t really that “complicated” a concept to grasp.  It’s pretty basic, actually.  Moreover, it’s a form of what is commonly known as “theft.”  And Wal-Mart did it knowingly and for the basest of reasons: they wanted to save money, and thought they could do it without getting caught.  But they got caught.  That’s why they’re paying $640 million.

Of course, the biggest shocker in all this is the fact that, despite Wal-Mart’s history of stinginess and deceit, the company’s employees are still independent.  The world’s largest retailer, with over 1.4 million employees, remains immaculately non-union (at least in the U.S.).  Given that labor unions, across-the-board, offer superior wages, benefits, and working conditions, that circumstance is absolutely astonishing.  Over 4,000 stores in the U.S., and not one of them is unionized?  That is mind-boggling.

It’s also a source of tension.  In truth, the AFL-CIO is split on how to regard Wal-Mart’s workforce, whom they’ve tried unsuccessfully to recruit for decades.  To some union leaders, Wal-Mart employees are still seen as sorry, over-burdened and underpaid folks, too intimidated and frightened to go about joining a labor union, and condemned to suffer as a consequence.

Other union leaders take a less generous view.  After years of futile organizing drives, they’ve come to regard Wal-Marters as ignoramuses and faux-individualists.  They see them as stubborn, gullible and vain—a bunch of company lackeys who deserve every crappy thing that happens to them.  If these people want the benefits of a union contract, then let ‘em grow a pair, and join a union.  Short of that, who gives a rat’s ass what happens to them?  Harsh as it sounds, that’s how they see it.

After all, look at the facts.  If a company spends millions of dollars trying to keep the union out, and preaches to its employees that unions are bad—that they’re unnecessary, that they’re a hindrance, that a union wouldn’t help them—and then turns around and steals wages from the very people who are loyal to that company and who can barely make a living on the wages they’re already being paid, what does that tell us?

Corporations cheat all the time.  They cheat the competition by engaging in illegal or unethical business practices, they cheat the public through false advertising and poor quality, and they cheat Uncle Sam by not paying their fair share of taxes.  The public has become inured to it

But when a corporation steals from its own people—especially ones as fiercely loyal as Wal-Mart employees—doesn’t that cross the line?  Doesn’t that totally blow their minds?  What’s it going to take for these Wal-Marters to realize they’re being exploited?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net