THE BLOG
12/05/2011 11:53 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

Occupy Wall-Mart: Save America. Live Better.

If there is a teaching moment for economic injustice -- Wal-Mart is it.

This enormous corporation has been built upon the backs of the 99% -- the 1.4 million American workers who have been exploited for 50 years to produce the richest family in the United States: the Walton heirs.

The encampments against corporate greed in the financial districts of America could just as well have appeared outside of Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. There is no better example of corporate exploitation in the world.

Who are the Wal-Mart 99%? The temp workers at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Elwood, Illinois who are suing the corporation for 'wage theft.' The hundreds of thousands of female Wal-Mart 'associates' who filed the largest class action gender discrimination lawsuit in history. The Wal-Mart workers who traveled recently to Bentonville with a "Declaration of Respect" seeking affordable health care and predictable work schedules. The 2,500 Bangladeshi women at the Anowara Apparels factory who are paid less than two cents for each pair of Wal-Mart jeans they sew. These are the people who have created the Wal-Mart 1%.

One of Wal-Mart's best-known 1%ers is former CEO, H. Lee Scott, who retired in 2009 at age 62. Scott's compensation that year -- counting his salary, bonus, restricted stock awards, options awards, non-equity incentive plan compensation, change in pension value and nonqualified deferred compensation earnings -- came to $30.2 million, or roughly $14,464 an hour. If H. Lee Scott came to work at 9:00 AM on a Monday morning, by 10:15 AM he had earned as much as one of his workers on the sales floor would earn in a year.

Ironically, it was during H. Lee Scott's tenure that Wal-Mart developed a manual of Standards for Suppliers which insists that Wal-Mart's vendor factories should honor a workers' "Freedom of Association: they must not impose any punitive actions against workers in supporting a union such as threatening, fining, suspending or firing workers exercising those rights. Any action that suppresses freedom of association is prohibited..."

This is the same company that has been sued repeatedly for violations of labor laws, and which has aggressively fought local union organizing efforts in its American stores. "Theoretically, I understand the argument that unions try to make," Sam Walton wrote in his autobiography, "and that associates need someone to represent them... But historically, as unions have developed in this country, they have been mostly divisive. They have put management on one side of the fence, employees on the other, and themselves in the middle as almost a separate business, one that depends on division between the other two camps."

Walton's worry was that if there were divisiveness in the worker camp, it would "make it harder... to be competitive, and to gain market share." Everything came down to market share. He noted that any time workers were clamoring for a union, "it's because management has done a lousy job of managing and working with their people." He said if Wal-Mart management involved its workers, "you won't spend all your time and money hiring labor lawyers to fight the union."

Wal-Mart today clearly is doing a lousy job of involving its workers, because it has spent a fortune on union-busting law firms and consultants -- including a nation-wide "labor-relations" campaign to convince its 99% workforce to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress.

When Wal-Mart announced in October of 2011 a series of cutbacks in its employee health benefits, the 'worker camp' was caught by surprise. "Over the last few years, we've all seen our health care rates increase and it's probably not a surprise that this year will be no different," a Wal-Mart spokesman said. "We made the difficult decision to raise rates that will affect our associates' medical costs. The decisions made were not easy, but they strike a balance between managing costs and providing quality care and coverage." But the company's "difficult decision" was a lot easier to make, because the workers had no seat at the table. This is why workers in the "99% camp" are angry at the corporate power that affects their well-being. How are they supposed to "live better" when they have no say at all in their own working conditions?

The company's justification for this massive exploitation of workers is that it helps 99% of consumers to buy cheap foreign-made goods. Wal-Mart's future depends on the premise that the typical lower middle class consumer's belief in economic justice is no deeper than the dimensions of his or her own shopping cart. But the 99% consumers are beginning to realize that companies like Wal-Mart have played a major role in the loss of 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2000, and the huge trade deficit with China. Wal-Mart needs a ready supply of poverty-level workers to survive, and the shrinking middle class feeds that monster.

Over the years, there have been many attempts by Wal-Mart shareholders to force the company to do a better job of taking care of the 99% of the people who create the corporation's wealth. None of these shareholders resolutions were adopted, because Walton Enterprises owns 1.68 billion (43%) of the common shares of Wal-Mart stock. Voting members of Walton Enterprises include S. Robson Walton, Jim C. Walton, Alice L. Walton, and the John T. Walton Estate Trust--the family symbol of 1% America.

An encampment by the 99% is sorely needed in Bentonville, because democratization of Wal-Mart's workplace will never happen on its own. Chief among the reforms of this giant corporation would be:

  • Grant workers the right to freely associate and form unions
  • End lobbying against the Employee Free Choice Act
  • Link executive compensation to efforts to narrow the disparity between the wage of hourly workers and top management
  • Set procurement goals that proactively substitute American-made products for foreign imports, reducing reliance on outsourced goods.
  • Publish an annual report of political contributions and an accounting of Wal-Mart funds used for political contributions or expenditures.
  • Add at least 3 hourly employees to the board of directors of the corporation

The beauty of an Occupy Wall-Mart movement is its accessibility to grassroots America. Occupy could take place at any of the company's 4,400 retail stores in the U.S. The company is ripe for neighborhood efforts to trim corporate power, and assert the needs of the 99% who work or shop there.

In Wal-Mart's case, fighting for economic justice is as close as your next shopping trip.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has been helping community groups fight big box sprawl since 1993. His most recent book is called "The Case Against Wal-Mart."