Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Wal-Mart's new wage policy

Wal-Mart has been getting a lot of criticism lately, and I am sure there will be a lot more discussion about the retail chain's business practices locally as we move closer to the opening of the new Super Wal-Mart southwest of town. An internal Wal-Mart document leaked to the news media proposes wage caps and moving to more part-time workers.

I was somewhat surprised when I first read of wage caps weeks ago that Wal-Mart did not already have such caps. I remember hitting the wage ceiling at Scott's Foods in Angola when I was in high school: baggers could not make more than $4.60 an hour. I moved to displays before being asked to transfer to bulk foods to cover a shortage there. Some of the retired gentlemen were unhappy about the wage ceiling on baggers, as they did not want to move to another department.

Interestingly enough, the minimum wage increase passed in 1990 actually created some inequity among store employees, since we started at $4.00 an hour. A bagger or cashier hired in January of 1991 would soon be making more than a bagger or cashier hired a year earlier, despite seniority. One cashier quit and then re-applied a couple weeks later, actually earning more money per hour than he would have if he had stayed.

The obvious question that needs to be asked here is this: what is the market value of retail store employees? How much is a greeter, cashier or stocker worth? How much do such employees contribute to the store's profit, sales, and customer satisfaction? Wal-Mart (or any other retailer) should not be expected to pay employees above their market value, even if such wage caps are deemed "unfair" by the news media or activist groups targeting Wal-Mart.

No matter how much someone may disapprove of Wal-Mart's employment policies, they have a right to engage in commerce and should not expect people will try to illegally prevent them from doing business. That is exactly what happened at the beginning of the school year, when thugs from No Sweat physically blocked busses from going to Wal-Mart to drop off IU students intending to shop there. (See articles from the Herald-Times and the Indiana Daily Student.)

When protesters were told to leave the scene by Bloomington Police, one protester whined that no one from Wal-Mart even came out to talk to them before calling law enforcement. What did they expect? Did they think a store in Bloomington, Indiana is going to be able to change policy for the entire chain? Did they expect that they would be allowed to disrupt Wal-Mart's business without facing consequences? Wal-Mart may be open to the public, but it is still private property. Shoppers are guests, and people trying to physically prevent customers from going into the building are not even shoppers.

As a huge corporation, Wal-Mart can expect to get more scrutiny than other retailers. It is perfectly reasonable to criticize Wal-Mart's policies, but they have a right to do business unencumbered by the illegal activities of do-gooder activists. I hope any further protests of Wal-Mart are much more civil and mature than the No Sweat protest was.