Could it finally be time to go back to Wal-Mart – or at least go there with a clear conscience?
For years, the low-priced retail giant, whose lights beckon when every other store is closed, has held a guilty appeal. Appeal, because where else could you go when the late-night urge for a new bath mat strikes? Guilty because the company has been notorious for underpaying its workers, to the point where many have been dependent on taxpayer-funded health care. Workers from a single Wal-Mart store in Wisconsin were so underpaid they had to take $1 million in public benefits in 2013.
The internal debate about shopping at Wal-Mart has hounded me since a robust dinner-table conversation with good friends many years ago. Several were Wal-Mart shoppers, while others shunned it, insisting that to patronize a place that doesn’t meet its ethical obligations was a tacit endorsement of its practices.
For the most part, I’ve avoided Wal-Mart while writing columns about the subpar wages it paid employees, most of whom earned under $25,000 while the CEO made $17.6 million.
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But change is coming, even to that behemoth. This year, after labor strikes, boycotts, and lawsuits, a downgraded market rating and a compendium of bad press, America’s largest employer announced it was raising starting pay from the $7.25 hourly mandated minimum to at least $9 an hour by this April, and at least $10 by next February. The company said more than a third of its 1.4 million U.S. workers will see pay increases. Hourly full-time workers will average $13 an hour. The changes are expected to cost the company more than $1 billion this fiscal year.
And the concessions keep coming. Wal-Mart also agreed to make workers’ schedules more consistent so their hours don’t change from week to week. Last week came news that workers are allowed to wear denim and ugly Christmas sweaters to work, and that store temperatures will be adjusted up or down by 1 degree in response to complaints. And workers will be entertained by a variety of piped-in music.
These changes aren’t necessarily being made out of the goodness of the company’s heart. Some states raised their minimum wages, forcing employers to comply. Workers have gone on strike for better pay and scheduling, and falling unemployment has given them other options. CEO Doug McMillon even acknowledged company practices had cost it customers, and spoke of “strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences.”
In a letter to the left-leaning online journal, ThinkProgress, Emily Wells, a leader of Our Wal-Mart, which organized workers, expressed pride at the successes. “By standing together we won raises for 500,000 Wal-Mart workers, whose families desperately need better pay and regular hours from the company we make billions for,” she wrote.
But she continued, “With $16 billion in profits and $150 billion in wealth for the owners, Wal-Mart can afford to provide the good jobs that Americans need – and that means $15-an-hour, full-time, consistent hours and respect for our hard work.”
So should you shop at Wal-Mart now? A friend who was on the avoid-Wal-Mart side in that dinner conversation years ago, says she hasn’t “technically” boycotted the store, but prefers to shop at locally owned stores that treat their producers well and care about the treatment of animals. While she supports Wal-Mart’s increase in wages, she said: “They’re doing very little and very late. They have sufficiently deep pockets that they could increase their base wage now.”
That friend, Kathy Eckhouse, and her husband, Herb, own La Quercia, which makes prosciutto and other cured pork products. They have 50 employees at their Iowa plant, and raised their minimum wage to $10.10 after President Barack Obama’s call for doing so in last year’s State of the Union speech. She said they don’t want anyone having to work two jobs to get by.
Nice as it would be to shop exclusively at independent local stores or Whole Foods, Wal-Mart’s lower prices still tug at consumers on a budget. And just as there was a case to be made for withholding one’s dollars from the store when it underpaid workers, there is a case to be made for showing approval for the wage hike by returning there.
Of course, the company has also come under past criticism for other practices ranging from censorship of CDs that had songs critical of its gun-sales policy to refusal to sell the morning-after pill at its pharmacies. It has been a bad neighbor in some communities where it replaced its existing stores with supercenters, and then abandoned the previous buildings to keep out competition rather than sell them.
In the end, each of us has to weigh the good and bad against our own priorities in deciding where to shop. These aren’t simple choices. But if nothing else, Wal-Mart has made its contribution by forcing us to think about what it means to be a socially responsible retailer – and consumer.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.
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