I laughed so hard the other day that I threw my back out of place. I will have to see if that is covered under Medicare Part A or Part B. Here is what I read that led to my injury, “Walmart is one of the greatest companies in the history of the world! This single company has done more for improving the world than every labor union combined.” This was said by, John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, which was recently sold to Amazon. If Mackey was standing up when he said this, I would consider it the funniest standup comedy routine I’ve ever heard.
Let me first point out to Mr. Whole Foods what unions have done to improve the world. Trade unions have joined with community organizations to combat child labor; they have done this all around the world. They have implemented and supported “Fair Trade” products and labeling initiatives in countries around the globe. Unions have fought for labor standards, social clauses in trade agreements, public education, human rights, worker safety and towards the end of sweatshops.
Here in the U.S. unions run the largest career training program outside the military. These union apprentice programs help place people in jobs that can support families. Union-trained military vets have rebuilt the World Trade Center. Union are a big reason we have a middle-class in this country. They helped create; public education, military leave, raises, the end of sweatshops, the minimum wage, overtime pay, 8-hour work day, weekends, paid vacations, lunch breaks, sick leave, 40 hour work week, pensions, holiday pay, employer health care insurance, collective bargaining rights, wrongful termination laws, sexual harassment laws, workplace safety standards and regulations, Americans with Disabilities Act, Occupational Safety & Health (OSHA), Workers Compensation, Social Security, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 (Requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work), Family Medical Leave Act and Veteran’s Employment and Training Services (VETS).
What has Walmart given the world? Truth is, if I typed all of the wrong Walmart (and Sam’s Club) did to this world, I’d get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. They are on the wrong side of every social justice issue. Let me start, with the lawsuits Walmart has lost. In the US, it is had a $50 million settlement in Colorado for off-the-clock working, an $11 million federal settlement for using illegal immigrants, and an $80 million fine in Texas for not disclosing evidence about safety problems. Raids in 1998, 2001 and 2005 resulted in the arrests of 225 workers without documentation located at Walmart stores around the country.
Barry C. Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation (a think tank), says that Walmart’s constant demand for lower prices caused Kraft Foods to “shut down thirty-nine plants, to let go [of] 13,500 workers, and to eliminate a quarter of its products.” In 2000, meat cutters in Jacksonville, Texas voted to unionize. Walmart subsequently eliminated in-house meat-cutting jobs in favor of prepackaged meats. A Walmart store in Jonquiere, Quebec (Canada) voted to join a union in 2004, so Walmart closed the store five months later. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the growing United States trade deficit with China, heavily influenced by Walmart imports, is estimated to have moved over 1.5 million jobs that might otherwise be in America to China between 1989 and 2003. In 1995, Chinese dissident Harry Wu charged that Walmart was contracting prison labor in Guangdong Province. There have also been reports of teenagers in Bangladesh working in sweatshops 80 hours per week at $0.14 per hour, for Walmart supplier Beximco.
On November 24, 2012 a fire in a Bangladesh clothing factory killed 112 workers. Survivors said that fire extinguishers did not work and that when the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no fire escapes or exits. Photos taken by Bangladeshi labor activists showed Walmart-branded clothing present in the factory. Documents revealed that at least five supplier companies had been using the Bangladesh factory to provide apparel for Walmart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club. It was also disclosed in a New York Times article that officials who had attended a 2011 Bangladesh meeting to discuss factory safety in the garment industry said that the Walmart official there had played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety. In Mexico, Walmart bribed officials to change zoning maps so they could build stores.
Until the mid-1990s, Walmart took out insurance policies on its employees including “low-level” employees such as janitors, cashiers, and stockers. This type of insurance is usually purchased to cover a company against financial loss when a high-ranking employee (i.e. management) dies, and is usually known as “Key Man Insurance”. The United States Internal Revenue Service charged that the company was trying to profit from the deaths of its employees, and take advantage of the tax law which allowed it to deduct the premiums. Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published by Americans for Tax Fairness. They found that, “a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.”
To get back to John Mackey, he stated in the Harvard Business Review that, “a business has to be sort of ruthless and heartless to be successful”. That shows why he really admires Walmart. Mackey is known for his strong anti-union views, he compared unions to herpes in that “it won’t kill you, but it’s very unpleasant and will make a lot of people not want to be your lover.” Whole Foods was accused of threatening immigrant workers in California who were trying to form a union. The company fired its unionized workers at its Auburn, Wash., distribution center for going on strike, and illegally hired scabs. In 2014 Whole Foods was forced to shell out $800,000 to the municipal governments of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and San Diego for mislabeling prepackaged food products with incorrect weights. In New York City, investigators weighed 80 different items at eight locations, every single one of the labels was found to be incorrect, usually overcharging the customer.
As union membership has declined in the past 30 years, wages, the middle class, worker’s rights, and the overall economy has declined also. That just shows you that unions are as relevant as ever. Part of the good that unions can do for the world, is to continue to battle the harm done by all the Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs and Whole Foods.
John Oliver: “Whole Foods”