As shoppers hit the big-box stores and plunge into another orgy of post-holiday bargain hunting, the usual handwringing about the low-wage employees who serve the buying class will surely begin.
And as you might expect, the big boy on the retail block, Walmart, will come under fire. Those who attack the giant retailer for its low wages and heavy handed management rules do have a valid point.
Wages at Walmart — and indeed at most other national retail chains — are often too low to live on and the company provides sufficient health insurance to too few of its workers. Indeed, some of Walmart’s uninsured are being shunted off to Obamacare or Medicaid, often at taxpayer expense.
This year, in diametrically opposed approaches to the Walmart problem, two notable Connecticut residents have entered the fray. Both engage in showmanship and pull stunts that garner publicity. Fortunately, one of them has a sense of humor.
Financier, investor and commentator Peter Schiff — a Fairfield County libertarian who lost to Linda McMahon in the U.S. Senate Republican primary in 2012 — roamed the parking lot of an anonymous Walmart, looking a little out of place and asking people if they thought it was fair that most workers inside the store only make about $8 an hour. Everyone in Schiff’s video felt the wage was unjust, but when asked if they’d be willing to pay 15 percent more in order to boost the average Walmart worker’s wage to $15 an hour (“15 for 15”), almost everyone balked.
Therein lies the problem. Hate the Walmart wage but love the prices. Several years ago I was having dinner with friends in Litchfield County when the subject of Walmart came up. I was told in no uncertain terms that Walmart was an exploitative corporation that put profits ahead of people.
Two weeks later I saw one of the those friends wheeling a cart full of merchandize out of the Walmart in Torrington. Since I didn’t want to embarrass my friend, I said nothing. But he hurried out of the store — presumably because he didn’t want to be seen.
To be sure, Schiff’s histrionics were staged to elicit maximum cognitive dissonance from shoppers and, as has been noted elsewhere, a wage rise to $15 an hour wouldn’t necessitate a corresponding 15-percent price hike. And there is the example of another discount retailer, Costco, which pays considerably better than Walmart, even if its business model isn’t precisely the same.
Still, Schiff’s silly video captures perfectly the old maxim about how easy it is to spend other people’s money. Most people like the idea of paying workers more until they realize that money will come right out of their own pockets.
And in the other corner we have legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The Winsted native has been complaining about Walmart for years. In early March, he brought the fight to his home state, setting up shop in front of the Torrington Walmart with dozens of supporters and family members.
Nader’s presence a few miles down Torringford Street from his hometown was ostensibly staged to begin his campaign for a rise in the federal minimum wage — even though at the time, Walmart’s Connecticut employees were earning an average of $13.50 an hour, well above the federal minimum of $7.25. But reporters working the weekend shift are always looking for something newsy to cover, so Nader got plenty of free local media coverage for a story had little to with Connecticut, where the minimum wage is $8.25 and is scheduled to rise to $8.70 on New Year’s Day.
“You have to start somewhere,” Nader told The Register Citizen newspaper, “and Walmart is everywhere.”
Exactly. Anyone looking to make a point about wages, markets, and retailing looks to the big boy on the block. And if the facts get in the way, who cares? The optics are still great.