Walmart Dropping Part-timers Maybe a Win for 30,000 Workers

3115642.largeNew Orleans    I stand second to no one as a critic of Walmart’s employee and labor relations policies, but it’s hard for me to join the boo-bird chorus about the company’s latest Scrooge-like action in dropping part-time workers averaging less than 30 hours per week.  The company just may have done most of them a favor given the Affordable Care Act rules.

            I’ve been on this soapbox before, so let me try to climb up again without falling.  Under the rules, if there is an employer provided plan, a worker can still go to the state or federal based marketplace to buy insurance, but they are barred from receiving subsidies to pay for the insurance or cost sharing to help defray the cost of co-pays and deductibles.  Given the real wages of Walmart workers, as opposed to the average wage the company claims it pays workers, many of these part-time workers, especially if they are relying on Walmart as their sole employer, would be getting health insurance at little or no cost through the marketplace.  The odds would also be very, very good that whatever they would be paying would be less than the cost of the Walmart plan on offer were they still allowed in.  Furthermore, I would bet real money, the plan would more likely have lower deductibles as well.  Walmart may not have meant to do so, but it may have done these part-time workers a big, big favor.

            I say they “may not have meant to do so,” because in their comments on their actions they have the big crying towel on about having spent a half-billion more on health coverage costs last year because of the Affordable Care Act, but this statement is disingenuous as well, and is linked back to the same rule.  The coverage mandate meant that Walmart workers almost had to use the company’s health insurance policy, no matter how lousy, in 2014, simply because the Affordable Care Act required company policies to be the first choice for workers if there was a qualified plan in place.  Many workers for the USA’s largest private sector employer, probably just sucked it up and signed up for the company’s policies not wanting to shop at the marketplace or feeling that it was inaccessible given the well documented problems with the website at the opening bell and earlier in the year.  Walmart was therefore forced to have to pay its portion of their company policy, which most of their workers had avoided in the past, therefore leading to it having to actually spend some more money on worker healthcare, rather than just pretending that the workers were covered, while hundreds of thousands turned up their noses and took a chance on their own health.

            The more you read about the 30,000 workers Walmart dropped, amounting to 5% of its 600,000 worker part-time workforce and a little less than half of its 1.3 million workers, it is even hard to tell if these figures are accurate.  Press reports are clear that in 2011 they had already dropped from any coverage all workers averaging less than 24 hours of work weekly, so this new action would have impacted the slice of the part-time workforce averaging more than 24 hours and less than 30 hours.  Are these numbers credible?  Who knows really?  I’m only leaning their way because I can’t believe they would make themselves look worse than they already are.

            The head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Union called Walmart’s move “shameful.”  Really, it’s just other day at the office in Bentonville, and possibly this excision of 30,000 workers may have been a lot less shameful than what they are doing to hundreds of thousands of workers with their substandard, but technically, qualified company plan every day.

 

Walmart is on Food Stamps

louisianaBaton Rouge   Despite all of our issues with Walmart, there is at least one situation where the classic line might be truthfully applied that what is “good for Walmart is good for the country,” and that rests on the fact that Walmart is a food stamp addict.  According to the company, 18% of United States food stamp benefits are spent at Walmart.   That’s not chump change.   According to calculations in the Wall Street Journal at means they go “cha-ching” for $18 billion of the $80 billion total USDA expenditure on food stamps.  

            In recent years to offset the terrible pain of the recession the US stimulus program had increased food stamp benefits by 13.6% in 2009 and now this temporary expansion of benefits ended and the impact is huge.  For families it means a 5.4% drop of benefits per month which for a family of four means about $40 per month and over $400 per year.   Some estimates believe such families will have 16 fewer meals per month.   Hitting the poor in their bellies has the collateral damage of also hitting Walmart and other grocery outfits, large and small, right in their pocketbooks, which is also why Walmart and other grocers have spent millions lobbying Congress to not eviscerate the food stamp program.    Given the horrible negotiations taking place now in Congress, there could be yet more cuts in store for hungry families, and that’s a terrible prospect.

            Of course Walmart, being Walmart, can’t even do the right thing without acting like a horse’s pitoutsie.   The US CEO Bill Simon tried to put a coat of corporate paint on this house of hunger by saying the food stamp cuts could be a win for the company given their discounting specialty since its market share went down when benefits expanded in 2008.  Simon added his greedy hopes that “Price will become more important.  When price is more important, we’re more relevant.”

            So I guess as soon as I said it, I have to take it back.   It turns out that it’s “what’s good for Walmart is not what’s good for the country.”   It turns out that even though they are the country’s biggest food stamp recipient, they still believe it’s all about their real corporate motto: “heads I win, tails you lose!”

The Poor Will be Among Us, and Corporations Will be Selling Them Crap!

Unilever products in Indonesia

New Orleans    When I wrote Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, with my editor’s encouragement I labored pretty hard to make the case that major corporations understood the importance of citizen wealth or income security for lower income families and some had in fact fine tuned their business models to live and die on that recognition.  The examples are easy to find in Wal-Mart, H&R Block, and many other consumer products, but the heart of my argument was that companies needed to play a better role in helping maintain and advance citizen wealth for working families and on the other hand predatory corporate players needed to be singled out and punished.

Given that background, it was with mixed feelings that I read with interest an article recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Multinationals Market to the Poor:  In Nations Such as Indonesia, Companies Find People at Poverty Line Are Steady Customers for Inexpensive Basics by Eric Bellman.   Reading the article was in some ways a depressing experience though.

Essentially, companies like Unilever, the consumer goods company known for its soap, shampoo, and food products in Indonesia, the worlds 4th most populous country and one of the poorest, has averaged annual sales growth of “more than 22% over each of the last five years.”  Sancoyo Antarikso at PT Unilever Indonesia argues that even in the recession, “we continued coming up with innovations that increase relevance, made our products more affordable, and even money-saving.”  I can’t even describe how much I hope that is true.

But reading about Nestle’s strategy gives me pause, especially given long and troubled history and contemporary stories of Nestle’s role in pushing baby formula on poor mothers around the world and more recently its involvement with other chocolate makers in aiding and abetting child slavery in its contract plantations in the Ivory Coast.  Bellman’s description of their activity in Indonesia is chilling:

Nestle is rolling out a new chocolate snack in Indonesia that was developed by its global network of food engineers [this already sounds frightening!] with the less-affluent customer in mind.  The Crunch wafers are bite-size crispy chocolate-filled triangles that sell for 10 cents per palm-sized package.  Crunch wafers are inexpensive in part because they tap into the same process used to make breakfast cereals.  They also are easy to transport and don’t melt or crumble in their inflated plastic packaging.  It was a complicated engineering process to deliver something so rugged at a low price, but Nestle hopes if the snacks sell well in Indonesia, it can launch them in other developing markets.

Reading that paragraph, does anything sound good? Nutritious?  Even worth a dime?  OMG!!!

That’s not all.  Look at this:

Analysts have long argued that companies selling products and services to people earning less than $4 a day can outperform in tough times.  This is because consumers still must buy food, soap, and other basic goods when the economy is bad….Companies selling everything from cheese to diapers to frozen fish have discovered in Indonesia that they can turbocharge growth…by offering small package sizes that are more affordable to the poor who have limited spending money on any given day.

For the life of me a lot of that sounds like “regressive pricing.”  By that I mean like regressive taxation, charging the poor way more money by volume and weight for the same basic commodity that would be offered someone not strapped to the highs and lows of their daily income.

Too much of this sounds like it doesn’t build citizen wealth, but is plain predatory no matter what the claims.

Nestle products around the world

Obama, Drugs, Indians, Frank Langella, Lauren Bacall, R. Crumb, Walmart, and Joplin

Chief James Allan of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe

New Orleans   In this week’s continuing experiment with new forms and focus “under the headlines” for the daily blog, here’s more:

  • Jackie Calmas in the New York Times on a meeting expected between Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos and Obama:  “they are expected to force a discussion Mr. Obama is not eager for in an election year, on decriminalization of drugs.  Their push is based on the widespread belief that the military approach of the American-led war on drugs in the region has failed.”
  • Chief James Allan of the Coeur d’Alene tribe on their part of the $1 billion settlement with 41 Indian tribes on governmental mismanagement of natural resources on tribal lands:  “They have kept their promises to Native Americans to ensure we are heard in Washington.  He [Obama] has not made treaties with us, but he gave us his word.  And his word has been golden.”
  • Frank Langella, the actor in his memoir, Dropped Names:

“In the less forgiving light of cold reality, I have lived my life as many actors have:  available and waiting, and often in a sort of emotional wilderness, feeling alone and apart.”  Interesting to think about how often they, and others, are waiting in the wings, and so rarely on the big stages.

He quotes Maureen Stapleton’s saying about working with Lauren Bacall, “I stay out of her way till they feed her.”  Vivid!

Charles Isherwood of the Times with a dead-on observation on memoirs:  “This is a true memoir, or rather a collection of memoirs.  The word has been corrupted these days to mean essentially the recounting of anything traumatic or even vaguely interesting that happened to the author, but it used to be more commonly used to describe recollections of famous figures:  other people.”

  • R. Crumb quoted by Elaine Sciolino for a piece in the NYT on the cartoonist’s retrospective in Paris:  “Death?  Afraid of death?  When you get older, you dry up.  You die.  That’s it.  I’ve lived my life.  I’ve lived it out.  I’ve left my mark.  I’ve had great sex.  I got a great record collection…”
  • “Wal-Mart’s environmental push has helped transform public opinion of the company, easing the way for it to open stores in urban areas like Chicago and Los Angeles.  About a quarter of Americans now have a favorable impression of Wal-Mart, about double the percentage that did in 2007…”  Let me see, in 5 years they went from 12.5% to 25% approval in 2012 meaning that 75% still disapprove, and that’s now considered a sufficiently successful image rehab?!?
  • According to Stephanie Clifford NYT: “The head of the fund [Environmental Defense Fund] took Mr. Scott [Walmart’s ex-CEO Lee Scott] on a trip to Mount Washington in New Hampshire, where the two bunked in a cabin and discussed how climate change would affect products Wal-Mart sold, including coffee….”   Eeeeewwww!
  • Two professors comparing the “recovery” efforts in Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama and arguing for why Joplin has done so much better by encouraging immediate, pedal to the metal rebuilding, versus Tuscaloosa’s program of moratorium, delay, planning and consultant sclerosis and quoting another Joplin resident in the Wall Street Journal:  “When you have the magnitude of that disaster, really the old ways of doing things are suspended for a while until you create whatever normal is…The government was realistic to know that there is a period of time when common sense, codes and laws that are in place to protect people are suspended for the sake of the greater good.”  That my friends is something fascinating to wrap your minds around.

    Joplin Recovery

Wal-Mart Reneges on Healthcare and Teaches Old Lessons Again

Kingston    Canada WalMart The last several days it feels like I have been reliving the organizing we did through the Wal-Mart Workers Association and WARN (Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now) from 2004 through 2008, largely in central Florida and California.  That experience was the heart of the discussion with our brothers on the national Steelworkers staff and an hour long interview and background briefing for a Nation reporter trying to assess organizing efforts and impact on Wal-Mart for a coming feature.  With the support of the Atkinson Foundation we are launching several pilots in 2012 in Toronto through ACORN Canada to test out alternative labor organizing models and foundations, so I found myself directing a workshop for a couple of hours in Kingston, an historic and pretty old town along the St. Lawrence River, with the ACORN Canada new organizing staff in Ottawa and Toronto.   With Wal-Mart too often again in my mouth and mind, I should not have been surprised to see a long piece on their massive retrenchment on healthcare for their workforce reported in the New York Times by Steven Greenhouse and Reed Abelson.

In recent communications with their workforce (“associates”), Wal-Mart lowered the boom by eliminating any access to healthcare insurance for any worker averaging less than 24 hours per week – and from our experience that would be a vast majority of their 1.4 million workers!  Additionally for employees who remain eligible the costs went up marginally on a weekly basis but the co-pays and deductibles went through the roof, sometimes moving from $1000 to as high as $5000.  Under the new Wal-Mart plan if you smoke, you croak.  Any admitted smokers would be required to pay additional huge premiums.  Other incentives that Wal-Mart (and may other large corporations) had supported to encourage coverage or savings for health care were substantially reduced or eliminated.

Wal-Mart’s argument was straightforward and simple:  it’s their economy, stupid!  Premiums had gone up and their profits were flat in the recession, so it’s so long, Charlie, and goodbye.  Will it hurt their workforce?  Hell, yes!!! Was that a factor, hell, no!  The company, which had been glad to herald its expanded coverage several years ago (though we questioned the veracity of their reporting!), now was very close mouthed about how many people were affected and how many would remain covered and actively insured.   Relatively speaking, I would bet from our experience that the numbers would plummet to less than 10% of the hourly, non-supervisory workforce, though Wal-Mart is always slick about the way it merges the salaried and supervisors into all figures about average wages and healthcare coverage.

Greenhouse indicated that some of the material on this change was supplied by OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart) and was clear that part of the original “reform” by Wal-Mart had been the result of widespread labor and community pressure, but it seemed to me that the company was once again reminding all of us how transient our efforts had been in the past and how irrelevant current programs like OUR Wal-Mart are to them in their current calculations.  Those of us who worked to organize Wal-Mart in recent years at least liked to try to rationalize all of our work by hoping that we had created the leverage that had led to some reforms, even if we thought the leverage was sold short and stubbed out when it could have yield more dramatic results.

An advocacy and communications campaign with a company as large as Wal-Mart certainly has some value, and ACORN International continues to aggressively and substantially support the work in India of our India FDI Watch Campaign which has kept Wal-Mart and other big box retailers bottled up and at bay on their expansion efforts in this huge market, so we understand why it is important.  Nonetheless Wal-Mart seems not to mind rubbing our noses in the dirt and reminding us that without deep and permanent organization inside the company of their workforce, the rest is just public relations and politics to them, entered based on their will and exited at their whim.

For all of the smoke and mirrors, sound and fury, unless there is a sustained, permanent effort to create a viable and internally powerful workers organization at Wal-Mart, the worlds’ largest private sector employer, nothing will check the ability of this company to give and take away based on whatever it deems expedient.  That simply does not work for its workforce, and when the giant roars others will follow, so the big footprints of the company will be dug deeper by other large and small firms moving to curtail benefits and protections in the wake of this action.  The company cannot be organized “old school,” and the UFCW and others have not yet mastered how to mobilize the resources, support, and commitments to successfully create the infrastructure that will build organization inside the company for the long term.

Wal-Mart keeps throwing down the gauntlet and proving one generation of labor leaders after another that they have the staying power and that any deals with them are temporary and contingent.  It’s all about them and the devil take the hindmost.

We need to make a commitment to organize this company come hell or high water, and finally mean it, not for a couple of budget cycles but until the job is done.

A Rough Road for Wal-Mart Women, but a Road

walmartHouston Wal-Mart took a shot at the Supreme Court on a last ditch appeal not on whether or not they discriminated against more than a million women, since everyone knew that was the case, but whether or not the class was too big.  Now we are obviously caught between “too big to fail” and “too big to win!”  Given the way of the world in Washington, women and the rest of us lost.

Now more than a million women have to figure out how to individually collect on the sexual discrimination they have experienced at Wal-Mart.  The lawyers who have been handling this case for years (here’s to you, Joe Sellers!) stepped right up and said they would figure out a way, but there’s another dog in this hunt now that could bring this bear down:  the new Wal-Mart workers association, change at Wal-Mart or whatever we call the union!

This is the clarion call for a workers’ organization.  The chance to bring together women working at Wal-Mart now, along with women who have been there in the past, to move collectively through the myriad hoops standing between them and their money is the perfect scope for a union.  No one else has the nationwide network of people that could mobilize the lawyers and others necessary to represent all of these women.

One thing could easily lead to another.

In the end it such a campaign would cost Wal-Mart more both in penalties and lawyer fees.  What’s more it could finally be the bridge between all of these workers and their understanding of what a union does and why it is essential.

Time to make lemonade out of this lemon!