As you may have heard last week, Walmart announced that they will raise the wages of over a half million of their lowest paid employees. In April, the minimum starting pay will go up to $9 per hour and then it will go up to $10 per hour next year. This is good news for those employees, of course. And it is good news for the economy. But it doesn’t say much of anything about the company itself.
I’m not one of those people who thinks that Walmart is a uniquely evil company. But it is an excellent exemplar of the evil company. Walmart, and the many companies like it, should be illegal in a modern capitalism. According to an article in Forbes last year, Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Public Assistance. That’s roughly 40% of the profit that Walmart makes each year. This is an argument that I’ve been making for years: this is not welfare for the poor; this is welfare for the rich. Food stamps, Medicaid, and SCHIP are programs that give money (indirectly) to the poor, but the real beneficiaries are people like the Waltons who get to pay their employees less than a living wage.
Of course, it isn’t like the government doesn’t know it is giving billions of dollars to Walmart every year. The government loves giving money to the rich while it holds its nose as though it were doing some great good deed to the undeserving poor. At the same time, ever since 1947 and the Taft–Hartley Act, the government has done everything it can to destroy unions so that workers had no power to get a slice of economic growth. And as Think Progress reported a few years back, Walmart Allows Its Workers to Unionize in Other Countries, Just Not in the United States. That isn’t because Walmart especially hates American workers. It’s because the American government especially hates American workers. But I digress.
Michael Hiltzik put the whole thing into context, Walmart’s Raise Underscores the Poor Condition of Most Low-Wage Workers. Much of the reason for these raises is simply that states have been raising their minimum wages, “That’s an improvement. But the average nationwide minimum will barely keep pace with statutory minimum wages now or going into effect in January in nine states and the District of Columbia…”
Here’s a little factoid that will make your head explode. Since 2008, Walmart has opened hundreds of new stores. Yet they have decreased their workforce by 120,000 people. This reminds me very much of Edward Baptist’s recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Just as industrialists made better equipment to increase productivity, the slave economy increased productivity via the whip. But as Hiltzik noted, there are limits to this approach to increasing profits, “In 2013 the grimy condition of [Walmart’s] stores, their unstocked shelves, and the lengthening of their checkout lines reached a crisis, and customers started to flee.”
There is no doubt that part of why Walmart is doing this is just to improve its public relations. The fact that so many of its workers depend upon public programs to make ends meet is well known — even blown out of proportion in many cases. And since just short of half of all American workers are seeing their minimum wages increased, Walmart certainly must have thought that they might as well make themselves look good instead of just like another company grumbling as the the minimum wage went up. (In Walmart’s defense, it has generally been supportive of minimum wage increases — for its own greedy reasons.)
But there are two things to take away from this. First: what Walmart is doing is pretty much the minimum that they could get away with. Second: Walmart wouldn’t have done anything at all if it weren’t for voters and organizers all over the United States who got the minimum wage increased. I continue to hear low (but not minimum) wage workers grouse about fast food workers’ demonstrations for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. This is about solidarity folks! Most of the evil work of the power elite is done for it by the oppressed workers. Non-unionized workers complain about unionized workers. Slightly above minimum wage workers feel they will get screwed if the minimum wage is lifted to their wage level. Unions are good for all workers — regardless of whether you are in a union. A higher minimum wage is good for all workers — regardless of whether you make the minimum wage. Don’t be fooled into doing the dirty work of Walmart and the rest of the power elite.