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National NOW Times >> Fall 2004 >> Article

Wal-Mart: Always Low Prices? or Always Discriminates?

by Olga E. Vives, Action Vice-President

More than 250 activists demonstrated outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter July 17, during the NOW National Conference in Las Vegas, Nev., and many chapters continue to "adopt-a-store" as part of NOW's effort to expose this Merchant of Shame. On Sept. 6, scores of activists rallied outside a Wal-Mart in Columbia, Md., expressing outrage over the corporationís treatment of women employees.

NOW activists demanded, in accordance with naming Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame in 2002, that the company address its systemic denial of equal pay and lack of promotions for women to higher paying jobs at all locations.

A group of 1.6 million women—both current and former Wal-Mart employees at their retail outlets, warehouses and Sam's Clubs—filed the largest employment class-action suit, with estimated damages totaling more than $1 billion.

NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives leads the way at the Wal-Mart protest in Las Vegas. The local UFCW supplied 'Wal-Mart is Anti-Woman' umbrellas.
NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives leads the way at the Wal-Mart protest in Las Vegas. The local UFCW supplied 'Wal-Mart is Anti-Woman' umbrellas. Photo by Lisa Bennett
NOW actions have not gone unnoticed. Wal-Mart spends a great deal of money and effort trying to counteract NOW's information campaign. The corporation also unveiled a new diversity initiative in June to prevent further gender bias and unfair treatment of workers.

Activists should be encouraged, but remain skeptical and persistent in their efforts. Consumers must know what lies behind the "Always Low Prices" slogan and the yellow smiley face. Activists must continue to educate Wal-Mart consumers about the unfair and discriminatory labor practices of the world's largest retailer.

Wal-Mart's War on Women

The Wal-Mart model sacrifices workers, especially women, through low wages, unattainable promotions and unaffordable benefits, in order to drive down costs and boost profits. Former Wal-Mart employees told NOW activists that while employed they complained about unequal wages and failed attempts at promotion to management.

For example, store managers, responsible for their stores' performance and results, are said to freely express the view that women can afford to make less, since they are not breadwinners, and accordingly pay them wages lower than male counterparts.

Women comprise 70 percent of all employees at Wal-Mart, so paying them 4.5 to 5.6 percent less than male counterparts results in significant savings that add profit to their bottom line. In addition, more than three out of five Wal-Mart employees, both male and female, cannot afford the company's health insurance. If the Walton family were to give back one percent of their company's $9 billion annual profits, insurance coverage could be provided at no cost to all employees. In management jobs, male trainees earn an average of $23,175 a year, compared with $22,371 for female trainees. Even in top management positions, held mostly by men, the average male senior vice-president earns $419,435 per year, while women earn $279,772 in the same position.

A Model for Discrimination

Wal-Mart's war on women affects all working families, as well as retail competitors in the United States. As the largest corporation and the largest employer in the United States and largest retailer in the world, they set the standard for competitors and provide a model of profitability for other corporations.

Wal-Mart has begun selling groceries in their 24-hour Supercenters and builds an average of one store per day. Grocery-store chains, especially unionized chains that pay their employees a fair wage, fear Wal-Mart's entry into their markets will make it impossible for them to compete without lowering wages and benefits, as they are already trying to do.

As retail businesses have difficulty competing, they often choose to reduce costs by denying workers fair pay and benefits and adopt the Wal-Mart model, or face bankruptcy. Safeway grocery stores in Southern California tried to reduce health care benefits to its unionized employees after Wal-Mart announced plans to build a number of Supercenters in their area. Union workers had to walk out and sustain a lengthy strike until contract negotiations ultimately gave in to some of Safeway's demands.

Wal-Mart seems determined to shut down larger competitors, as well as smaller local shops. In the beginning, Wal-Mart concentrated on building stores in rural areas, driving "Mom and Pop" businesses out of small towns and shutting down "Main Street." Recently, they began expanding into urban areas. They now hold 60 percent of the discount-retail market and continue to gain market share.

K-Mart had to file bankruptcy, lay off thousands of workers and close hundreds of store due to Wal-Mart's predatory practices. Reportedly Toys R Us plans to sell and/or close stores altogether as Wal-Mart continues to cut into their business, by selling merchandise at prices below the profitability margin of any business that pays decent wages.

The marketing of "Always Low Prices" is as bogus as the ads suggesting Wal-Mart as a good, friendly place to shop and work. "Loss leaders," a few products at rock bottom prices, project an image of low prices. However, loss leaders balance with normal, every-day prices on most items, the same as or slightly higher than competitors' prices.

Looking behind the misleading slogan and yellow smiley face reveals that Wal-Mart's practice brings nothing but harm to all sectors of society. Wal-Mart discriminates against women, denies affordable benefits to all employees, creates unfair competition for other businesses, and tricks consumers into believing they save when shopping there.

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