Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Missing the Target

Will Baude, discussing opposition to Wal-mart, says:

In other words, these unnamed critics ask why Wal-Mart cannot spend 65% of its profits on paying its workers above-market wages. I mean, I suppose Wal-Mart could decide to spend its profits that way (corporate law problems notwithstanding) but that seems like rather extraordinary philanthropy. And even if Wal-Mart were interested in spending most of its profits that way, I think there would be more beneficent ways to spend that 6.5 billion dollars, like paying them to people who don't already have not-awful jobs.

I think that last sentence is wrong, in that jobs at Wal-Mart are awful, paying $6.50 an hour with essentially no benefits for backbreaking work*, but it's not Mr. Baude to which my title refers.

What's with these critics? I'm pretty staunchly pro-labor, and yet I don't understand all the things I see about "unnamed critics" criticizing the labor practices of companies like Wal-Mart and Starbucks.

Will's quite right that Wal-Mart probably can't paternalistically allocate a big chunk of shareholder profits to employee wages. Is it really the strategy of pro-labor folks to try to appeal to the generosity of big corporations? That's like peace activists trying to stop war by appealing to the Army Chief of Staff; he has a duty, and it's to exert military force. What ever happened to leverage?

Workers at Wal-Mart will get better wages when they demand them and back them up with the kind of economic weapons authorized by the National Labor Relations Act. If Wal-Mart engages in illegal and unfair labor practices to resist that, then fair wage advocates will have a much better weapon to use against them than an attempt to publicly shame them.

Likewise, to the guy handing out boycott fliers outside Starbucks until management accedes to a Barista union: the Baristas have to want to unionize for that to work. Starbucks customers can impose their desired labor-relations scheme on Starbucks through a boycott, if they really have the muscle to do that. It would be far easier (which is not to say easy) to organize employees.

You'll get no argument from me (although I suspect you would from Mr. Baude) that U.S. labor laws are too weak and make it too hard to unionize. If that's your beef, then save your shaming campaign for the people who should be ashamed of the way that our law protects big companies over their employees: the people who write the laws.

*I highly recommend Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America for a perspective on working at Wal-Mart.


Blogger Matthew said...

"Workers at Wal-Mart will get better wages when they demand them..."

The only problem with this is that these workers are very expendable. I really don't mean this a slam on them, but the employees I've come across at Wal-Mart don't seem highly-specialized or skill-driven. You don't have to have a degree to work at Wal-Mart.

It just seems to me that if Wal-Mart employees really started kicking-up some dust, the company would find a way to get rid of them, and probably wouldn't miss a beat by having someone new and just as unskilled put in their place.

I have the utmost empathy for the employees. I really do. We all have to earn a living. But reality is reality, and skilled laborers the Wal-Mart employees are not, unfortunately.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Legally, it doesn't matter if they are skilled or not. It's illegal to fire employees for unionizing.

That doesn't mean it's not done, but then there is legal leverage that can be used against the company.

12:35 AM  
Blogger ryan bradley said...

I think part of the problem, actually, is that workers in thse really low end jobs don't know what their options are as far as unionizing, or what the process for doing so would be. The process is esoteric enough that your average $6.50 worker isn't going to want to figure out how to do it..

As to "nickel and dimed", I haven't read it, but Steph's major complaint about the book is that the author always had this 50k bank account to fall back on when things got really hard so it colored her interactions with the poor people she was studying. She had an alternate suggestion, but I'll leave that conversation for Steph to have.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

That's fine, except, no, she didn't have a 50k bank account to fall back on.

Unless you mean the fact that she was highly educated and could return to her life as a professor when it's over. But I don't see how that is avoidable, since someone making $6.50 an hour certainly isn't going to write a sociological study of low wage employment.

1:06 PM  
Blogger ryan bradley said...

Perhaps I am thinking of a different book? I swear it was that one... ah well, as I haven't read it, what do I know anyway? ;p

1:20 PM  

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