Friday, June 13, 2008

The Bad Get Good

"People shop at Wal-Mart because of low prices, not because the company is politically correct, [Peter] Flaherty shouted at the crowd...This is a kind of guerilla fight, says Flaherty, who heads up a tiny right-wing think tank..."

David McGinn, "Is Wal-Mart Too Liberal?" Newsweek, June 9, 2008

I'm embarrassed to say that in the early 1980s I watched television every night as I studied for my doctoral exams. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I needed some background noise. Who knows?

But the tube didn't completely numb my critical faculties. I invented a handful of TV beatitudes for understanding life based upon the crop of shows I was exposed to: The self-righteous will inherit the world. Life is complex. And the good get bad and the bad get good.

It's the third beatitude that may have some relevance for the devilish Wal-Mart transformation? An old community organizing version of this beatitude is "Make no permanent friends and make no permanent enemies."

Can Wal-Mart become "good" in addition to saving consumers precious dollars? What would be the tipping point for their goodness? Better wages and benefits? Scholarships for workers to attend community colleges? Continued reduction of their environmental footprint?

Unfortunately, doing good draws fire from some quarters.


Benji said...

I'm interested in what exactly about Wal-mart is not politically correct. Having worked for them in the past,
I could find find some faults with the company but I suppose, but overall I felt they were making moral and ethic decisions in their business dealings, or at least attempting to, long before others. Certainly they ar ea succesful company and make a lot of money but would that justify them being helf to a different standard than smaller retailers?

Bob Giloth said...

What was interesting in the Newsweek article is that Wal-Mart was being denounced for supporting minimum wage legislation, expanding health-care benefits -- in short, doing the right thing. But you're point is a good one. The question I would pose is whether a different standard comes with scale of operations and overall market effects

Benji said...

Yes, well, I certainly believe it is an error to allow corporate interest to directly influence politics to such a degree, although I can't see how to prevent it exactly.
About expanding healthcare and addressing low salaries, I really think the Government needs to step in and address these issues somehow.
When I worked at Wal-mart I was classified as Part-time, as were most. That meant that if I reached 39 hours in a week, I needed to stop what I was doing and immediately go clock out. Apparently if I worked 40 hours in a week it would be hard to justify classifying me as part-time, and thus issues of standard full-time benefits would need to considered.
But it did become apparent to me that the turnover rate was quite high and many of the positions were after all unskilled labor. And it did seem like they took care of the people who had been there for years, giving them full-time positions with benefits.
At the end of the day I really couldn't complain since Wal-mart was paying me more than any of the retailers would in my small hometown. And those smaller retailers definitely couldn't afford to pay out benefits.
Now days it seems like more and more businesses are finding ways to avoid these costs associated with healthcare and paid leave. In my mind this is more about healthcare than anything else. I had one job later in life where I was kept on as a contractor for 6 months before being made an employee. This was because they said they couldn't afford to hire any more staff during that time. A lot of americans don't have healthcare and I think the companies that employ us are tired of being asked to foot the bill.
Should wal-mart be held to a higher standard since they have a bigger economic impact? Should they be criticized for tring to find loopholes in cutting costs in their workforce? Maybe so. But I think we can hardly expect a corporate entity which primarily exist to make profits to be more responsible than our own government, which is failing to address economic problems, low wages, and lack of healthcare.
Well, I now live overseas, in New Zealand specifically, where there is no wal-mart although there is at least one retailer here trying to follow their model somewhat. There are more smaller and private businesses here and although there are plenty of part-time workers, the norm is most of the work-force being full-time with paid leave and sick days. I haven't seen them shrink from hiring people on here as full-time employees at all. It might have something to do with the fact that it is not required for companies to offer any sort of healthcare at all to their employees. We have ACC here, instituted by the government, which is a 4% tax (2% paid by employee and 2% paid by the employer). It covers all accidental injury for all people in the country. 2% is such a small amount to pay for that and it certainly takes the edge off a lot of health care concerns here.
Sorry my thoughts are all over the place and I have digressed a bit.