||Polly goes home to Arkansas and finds Walmart
Pole Cat Creek, Toad Suck Park, Pig Trail Scenic Highway and Eat Buck Nekkid Barbecue—these were some of the highway signs my friend and I encountered on a recent trip from the Twin Cities to Hot Springs, Ark. It was a memorable vacation. The most interesting place we visited was in the town of Bentonville in northwestern Arkansas, home of Walmart, Sam Walton’s corporate empire.
Bentonville is the ultimate in “company towns,” with Walmart “the employer,” directly or indirectly, of most all the population.
Bentonville, population 19,730, has become a major tourist stop in recent years because of “Crystal Bridges,” a world class art museum founded in 2005 by Alice Walton; it’s located just outside the town and opened just last year. There must have been several hundred people in attendance the day we were there. There is no entrance fee. In the building, we were greeted by a past middle-aged smiling woman—no doubt a local volunteer—who directed us to the proper line where we waited a good 15 minutes to pass through to the next individual, a genial, again past middle-aged African American man who warned us not to stand closer than 6 feet from any exhibit, to get rid of any chewing gum and “to have a nice day.”
The 201,000 square feet Museum, costing $800 billion, and designed by a renowned architect named Moshe Safdie, is twice the size of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Its collection is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and features American art from the colonial through the contemporary periods. Among the artists whose work is featured are: Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Max Weber, Robert Henri, Lyonel Feininger, Thomas Hart Benton and Andy Warhol. The building consists of a series of pavilions, wrapped around two creek-fed ponds, which house galleries, meeting and classroom spaces, and a large, glass-enclosed gathering hall. Most of the exterior walls are of glass and overlook 120 acres of pine and oak trees, manicured lawns and lucent ponds.
There are 120 full-time employees—one for each acre?
That the Walmart company will continue to fund the museum is evident by its recent contribution of $20 million to cover all entrance fees for all time. Of course Walmart can afford it. It is the world’s 18th largest corporation and the largest public corporation ranked by revenue. It is also the largest retailer in the world and the largest private employer in the world, with over two million employees.
The company, founded by Sam Walton in 1962, also owns and operates the Sam’s Club retail warehouses in North America and has 8,500 stores in 15 countries. Its employees total 2.2 million. Each week about 100 million customers visit Walmart’s U.S. stores attracted by its low prices.
Full-time Walmart employees earn an average of $10.78 per hour, but starting pay can be much lower—placing some employees with children below the poverty line. Among employee grievances are the low level of health coverage or overpriced health insurance, poor working conditions, and anti-union policies. It has an employee turnover rate of 70%.
Back in 2008 the company agreed to pay $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class action suits which alleged that Walmart systematically denied employees’ overtime pay. In May of 2012, the company was forced to pay $4.83 million in back wages and damages to 4,000 employees it had illegally denied overtime. Walmart is Mexico’s largest private employer, with 209,000 employees.
According to a recent New York Times story, a 2005 investigation by the company uncovered that the U.S. Department of Labor ordered Walmart to pay $44.8 million in back pay and fines to thousands of employees illegally denied overtime. Just a few years earlier the company had to pay $34 million in back pay to 87,000 employees. The company’s low-paid employees, in need of help, are often forced to apply for publicly funded benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. The National Employment Law Project uncovered widespread abuse of low-paid temporary laborers working in warehouses. Human rights groups criticize Walmart for its use of sweatshop labor in China.
And then there’s discrimination. Last year Walmart beat a class-action suit by thousands of its females employees on a technicality, but documents revealed the company routinely discriminates against women. In 2005 the company paid a $11 million fine for mistreating immigrant employees.
Today it appears Walmart has resorted to another strategy. It involves giving contributions to politicians, hiring lobbyists, mounting public relations and ballot campaigns to win public support. In the past decade, Walmart has contributed more than $11 million to candidates for president and Congress, political action committees and political parties. It has also pumped millions of dollars into conservative think tanks and lobbying organizations, including those representing the National Rifle Association. This is understandable since Walmart is the country’s biggest seller of shotguns and ammunition.
In order to gain the support of community groups in opening stores Walmart dramatically increased its charitable philanthropy. Its U.S. contributions jumped from $270 million in 2007 to $873 million last year. Following are some of these groups: NAACP, the Urban League, Goodwill, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, Chrysalis, Children’s Hospital, as well as several Asian American organizations.
Though there have been many efforts among employees to organize, they have come to naught. In lieu of a union, a loosely knit association of about 5,000 Walmart employees have formed the Organization United for Respect at Walmart: OUR Walmart. It lacks the right to bargain on workers’ behalf but it does receive some financial and technical support from the nation’s largest retail workers union—the United Food and Commercial Workers.
My personal solution for Walmart employees would be for them to declare themselves a charitable organization designed to help poor people such as Goodwill and Catholic Charities and solicit funds, and hold fundraisers. Of course, the people the organization would be providing economic assistance to would be Walmart employees. They might even have a volunteer to stand with a donation box each day as people enter Crystal Bridges. But somehow I don’t think that would go over too well with the company.