Paul Cherulnik: Wal-Mart critics look at wage, fairness issues too narrowly

Last modified: Friday, December 20, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — It is probably very self-satisfying to carry placards proclaiming that corporations like Wal-Mart are more interested in maximizing their profits than in enhancing the welfare of their employees. And the charge is undoubtedly true.

But many protests about corporate greed seem based on little critical thinking and raise as many questions as they answer. Do local businesses treat their employees better? Can we assume that the men and women who work in the kitchens, at the checkout counters and in the stock rooms of local stores get better pay, better benefits and more career opportunities than employees in corporate chain stores?

Local business owners may claim unfair competition, but are those claims more self-serving than considerate of their employees? Stories about Wal-Mart employees being eligible for food stamps and other government programs ignore the fact that the clients of at least one of our local food banks include workers at local restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses.

And such stories in the Gazette appear in the same issues as help-wanted ads placed by the newspaper that appear to offer delivery persons lower wages than Wal-Mart employees would accept when car expenses are taken into account, and worse hours.

Wal-Mart protesters tout studies that show that the wages of employees of corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s rank near the bottom of all corporations. Can we reasonably expect that people who operate cash registers and fryers and stock shelves should earn as much as those who do more skilled and responsible jobs that require higher levels of education and experience?

Anti-corporate protesters tend to focus on the welfare of the employees. What about their customers? In case the protesters haven’t noticed, there are people in our communities who struggle to put food on their tables, buy clothes and supplies for their children and have enough left over for rent, utilities and transportation.

A few years ago, my wife and I were in a tour bus in northern New Hampshire that was driven by a local woman. As the bus passed the steel skeleton of a building under construction, a passenger asked the driver what was being built there. She became emotional as she told us that it was a new Wal-Mart store where she would finally be able to afford clothing and other necessities for her family. Many of us would not want to be caught dead buying our clothing and groceries in a Super Wal-Mart, but for those who have limited resources, the selection, quality and prices there are a welcome option.

Which is why the owners of local businesses, especially those who aren’t good at keeping their prices down and customer service up, may dread the competition. It is also the reason that in many of our local communities, where unemployment is high and wages are low, the prospective neighbors of a new Wal-Mart store expect annoyingly high levels of traffic nearby. Should Wal-Mart be less stingy with their employees? Should Wal-Mart be a less ruthless competitor for other merchants? Should communities hold Wal-Mart to a higher standard of citizenship?

The answers are yes, of course, on all counts. But should other employers be given a free pass to pay the minimum wage, offer minimal benefits, escape price and service competition from regional and national chains and drive nonshoppers from public sidewalks in front of their stores? I don’t think so.

Paul Cherulnik lives in Leeds.