News & Politics

Five of the Nastiest Examples of Wal-Mart Evil

From worker mistreatment to putting local stores out of business, here's how Wal-Mart is still fighting for the wrong side.

It seems like Wal-Mart is never out of the news. From intensive campaigns to draw attention to sweatshop conditions in their overseas factories, to efforts to keep the discount retail giant out of urban areas where they’d put local stores out of business, to complaints about gun sales and censorship of music, to massive lawsuits filed by workers in stores around the country, the questionable ethics of the giant corporation remain under constant attack. In fact, there’s even a WikiPedia page devoted solely to criticisms of Wal-Mart.  

In fact, the company’s union busting is so relentless (simply closing branches that push for unionization) while their worker treatment remains sub-par that workers are currently organizing a non-union group to push for fairer wages and hours.

A quick search through AlterNet’s own archives for “Wal-Mart” reveals dozens upon dozens of stories and blog posts from the last decade, detailing everything from worker exploitation in China to “greenwashing” to sex discrimination to, in a case that got decided on appeal last week, breaking an agreement to provide paid rest breaks for workers.

Here are five of the most egregious examples of corporate wrongdoing from Wal-Mart, many of them recently in the spotlight:

No paid rest or meal breaks

Imagine being on your feet all day working an aisle or cash register, and being so harried that you can’t even go outside for your designated rest break--or those breaks count as unpaid time. For many Wal-Mart workers, that was (and possibly still is) the reality.

For these violations, the corporate behemoth has been in the spotlight thanks to a class-action lawsuit begun by two workers in Pennsylvania--on behalf of 187,000 employees--who alleged that Wal-Mart denied them the paid rest and lunch breaks demanded by their contract--thanks to a smaller staff and increased pressure to drive a profit. The plaintiff’s team used the evidence of over 46 million individual work-shifts to make their case. They won their  $187.6 million verdict, and this week the workers won their appeal, dealing another blow to the employer.

As the website for the class-action suit explains, “After a five-week trial, the jury found that Wal-Mart violated state laws and breached their agreement to provide paid rest breaks and to pay for all time that employees worked off-the-clock.” The same decision was upheld on appeal.

Wal-Mart has vowed to continue fighting. In the meantime, a similar case is being filed in Minnesota, evidence that this was a widespread problem.

To see what it’s really like working in Wal-Mart, read this dispatch from John Olympic, who wrote in AlterNet about everyday life working the aisles of the shopping giant.

Widespread Sex Discrimination

While the brave women in the case above sued Wal-Mart for specific violations, other women across the country have joined together to sue Wal-Mart for discrimination, claiming gender-based mistreatment that pervades every aspect of working at Wal-Mart.

Dukes vs. Wal-Mart is the largest civil class-action suits in history, filed back in 2001 by brave employee Betty Dukes and joined by between 500,000 and 1.5 million women. Drawing attention to commonplace instances of a workplace glass ceiling, the denial of advancement, a persistent pay gap between men and women, and retaliation for worker grievances, the case has been working its way through the courts since then and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it this year. A decision is expected soon.

The Equal Rights Advocates sum up the suit here:

 “The lawsuit alleges that female employees of Wal-Mart are denied advancement and training opportunities, paid less than men for the same or comparable work, steered to lower wage departments, subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and retaliated against when they attempt to address sex discrimination.”

At the ERA site, it’s noted that since the lawsuit was filed, and as it gained class-action status and traction in the courts, Wal-Mart has changed many of its corporate policies, while other big companies have been sure to take notice and avoid a costly court battle.

Back in 2006, in response to another class-action sex discrimination lawsuit filed by employees, Wal-Mart agreed to change insurance policy to cover contraceptives, which had previously been excluded.

Urban Encroachment

Wal-Mart has been a mainstay in rural areas where other options are slim (although it has resulted in mom and pop stores closing left and right), but for a long time, it couldn’t make a dent in the biggest cities. Why? Nelson Lichtenstein explained in AlterNet earlier this year:

Wal-Mart was barred from these big blue cities because a coalition of unions, liberals, and environmentalists, including a large slice of those elected officials representing African American and Latino communities, said no. More recently, though, Wal-Mart has been banging on these doors again -- this time around, marketing itself as an environmentally sensitive, job-providing panacea for urban America. While doing nothing to alter its exploitative labor practices, Wal-Mart has worked hard to woo an incongruous collection of liberal constituencies, including enviros, building-trade unions, and inner-city pols. They’ve gained a limited entry -- one store here, another there -- to some cities they couldn’t crack half a decade ago. Whether they can gain more -- flooding into the cities and bringing down the wages of hundreds of thousands of unionized urban grocery workers in the process -- remains to be seen.

Lichtenstein also writes that Wal-Mart needs these urban customers, and that’s why despite numerous setbacks at the hands of these coalitions, Wal-Mart continues to push and release endless propaganda to gain a foothold in these markets. Just recently, Wal-Mart has been attempting to open a branch in NYC. And make no mistake; if Wal-Mart does open stores the net result for citizens would be no good. AlterNet’s own Lauren Kelley wrote a piece for Change.org explaining the negative impact a Wal-Mart would have on the city, explaining the “Trojan Horse” effect the retailer would have:

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has released a report finding that a New York City Wal-Mart would have a net negative effect on job creation in the city while driving down wages and benefits for workers...the report looks at data from more than 50 Wal-Mart studies around the country and concludes that Wal-Marts generally put neighboring mom-and-pop stores out of business, negating any jobs created by the retailer. "For every two jobs that a Wal-Mart adds, they destroy three," de Blasio told ABC. "So there's a net job loss. The jobs that remain are lower paying. You add all that up, it doesn't make sense for a community. It's like a Trojan horse."

Unfair Wages and Union-Busting at Home and Abroad

One of the great ironies of Wal-Mart is that it exemplifies both unfair labor treatment at home and in its overseas factories--and both problems are caused by the relentless drive to lower prices, the relentless “race to the bottom” that leads to sweatshop conditions in third-world countries. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, during the heyday of the anti-sweatshop movement, Wal-Mart’s was one of the names that came up most frequently for egregious abuses like workers being locked in, forced to work overtime, denied maternity and sick leave, and worse. AlterNet contributor Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” revealed some of these egregious conditions.

And here at home, the company’s anti-union efforts have been widely documented--so intense are they that the United Food and Commercial Workers has decided that instead of fighting to form union, it will support a group called "Our Wal-Mart."

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money explains that since it's "almost impossible" to unionize a Wal-Mart store, this is the next best bet:

And that’s why I like the Our Walmart organization. Rather than lose another union campaign, UFCW has chosen to create a kind of voluntary workers’ organization with dues-paying members that will serve as the closest thing to an advocacy group as Wal-Mart workers will have for the present. Ideally, this organization will show workers that a union can do wonderful things for you, thereby building more support for a true union.

Hopefully these worker advocates will implement change. AlterNet's Joshua Holland did an economic analysis of Wal-Mart workers salaries, pointing out that raising wages to a “living wage” standard would, in fact, barely impact the American consumer.

This level of disrespect is endemic to the very foundation of the company. Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked at Wal-Mart for research, has described the corporate structure of the organization as so top-down and bureaucratically rigid that even discussions of where to stock merchandise have to come from headquarters, not from workers themselves.

Perhaps David Moberg summed the issue at the heart of the Wal-Mart problem when he explained, in a must-read piece, that Wal-Mart both follows and leads the disturbing trends in American capitalism:

Wal-Mart casts a global shadow across the lives of hundreds of millions of people, whether or not they ever enter a Supercenter. With $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart is so big, and so obsessively focused on cost-cutting, that its actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, transport and communication, politics and culture, and the organization of industries from retail to manufacturing, from California to China.

 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.