Work Life

Shining Light on Low Wages

At Sunset
At Sunset

LAKE MACBRIDE— When people talk about suppression of wages in the United States, and the growing inequality between the richest Americans and the rest of us, Walmart and the heirs of Sam Walton have been the poster children with the biggest target on their back. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notably said in a tone of moral outrage, “today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America.”

The Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently published a report based on data about Walmart employees in Wisconsin who participate in federal social programs. The report quantifies the financial impact of Walmart employees on the U.S. social safety networks, and on the economy more generally. The report said, “rising income inequality and wage stagnation threaten the future of America’s middle class. While corporate profits break records, the share of national income going to workers’ wages has reached record lows.”

Thomas Stackpole released a story about the Democratic report on Mother Jones yesterday, and if a person is interested in the issue of low paying jobs, it is worth a read. The author circulated two of the progressive nostrums I mentioned in my article, “Working for Low Wages,” increasing the minimum wage and union organizing. Stackpole wrote, “Walmart’s history of suppressing local wages and busting fledgling union efforts is common knowledge.”

In my article, I made the case, based on my personal experience as a warehouse worker, that there is more to working a low wage job than the pay. There has to be because the cost of living, including health care, transportation, food, shelter, and interest on debt, is more than low wage jobs pay. Nothing would change if the minimum wage were raised to over $10 per hour as some legislators propose. Low wage jobs fall short of a living wage, so people have to adapt, and one of the ways they do is to take advantage of governmental social programs. It’s not the only way people adapt, but it is an expense to taxpayers to provide these programs, and because Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. they are used as the whipping boy for the impact of their low wages on the expense of social programs to taxpayers.

Unions have to become more relevant to low wage workers before they have a chance in companies like Walmart. The repeated failures of union organizing attempts at Walmart serve my point. Part of the failure to organize is the resources the company’s management brings to bear on any organizing attempt. Part of it is the failure of unions to provide what is perceived by a majority of targeted workers as value. Creating a Walmart employee union does not seem to be in the cards despite all the noise in the corporate media. Sanders’ moral outrage, and ours, goes unaddressed, and will until unions become more relevant to the needs of low wage workers, as those workers perceive it.

The debate over Walmart employees using the social safety net seems a red herring, especially at the granular, local perspective of a person who has recently worked a low wage job. It is doubtful that government, especially one with close ties to Wall Street, will be able to do much to impact working people in a meaningful and positive way. Nor is it the role of government to preserve and build the middle class. It’s the working class that needs help and the two aren’t the same thing.

When government creates a program like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), reduced price school lunches, subsidized housing, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), they address poverty in the way government knows how. That a big company has employees on government programs is neither surprising, nor a source of the same moral outrage that should be expressed about the the disparities between the richest Americans and the rest of us.

Participating in government programs is one of the ways low wage workers get by. Shining light on Walmart and Sam Walton’s heirs contributes little to resolving the needs of working people, even if some with a national perspective are fond of doing so.