There's a power struggle going on in Washington right now, not between Republicans and Democrats but between Wal-Mart—which is supposed to open six stores in the District—and the city council, which has a bill pending to require big-box retailers to pay a living wage. As you surely know, Wal-Mart was built on keeping costs as low as possible, particularly labor costs. The model Wal-Mart recruit is someone who has no other employment options and will take whatever they can get. The retail colossus isn't going to let some uppity city council tell it how much it can pay its employees:
The world's largest retailer delivered an ultimatum to District lawmakers Tuesday, telling them less than 24 hours before a decisive vote that at least three planned Wal-Marts will not open in the city if a super-minimum-wage proposal becomes law.
A team of Wal-Mart officials and lobbyists, including a high-level executive from the mega-retailer's Arkansas headquarters, walked the halls of the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday afternoon, delivering the news to D.C. Council members.
The company's hardball tactics come out of a well-worn playbook that involves successfully using Wal-Mart's leverage in the form of jobs and low-priced goods to fend off legislation and regulation that could cut into its profits and set precedent in other potential markets. In the Wilson Building, elected officials have found their reliable liberal, pro-union political sentiments in conflict with their desire to bring amenities to underserved neighborhoods.
For Wal-Mart, this isn't just about these particular stores. They can make money even if they pay a higher wage at these stores, and with over 10,000 stores around the world, the D.C. locations are a drop in their enormous bucket anyway. It's about their relationship both to the people they employ and to the communities they locate in. It's about power, and as far as they're concerned, power has to reside with Wal-Mart. Their employees do what they're told and get paid what they're told, and if they don't like it they can go find another job. By the same token, the city council gives Wal-Mart what it wants, and if it doesn't they can try to find somebody else to open a store there.
My guess is that in the end, either the city council will cave or Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill (he says he's considering it). Why? Because Wal-Mart can walk away from the D.C. stores without a second thought, while the council desperately wants both the jobs the stores will bring and the ability for their constituents to have a convenient place to shop. One side has virtually nothing to lose, while the other side has a great deal to lose.
Would Wal-Mart make less money if they paid their employees a little more? Not necessarily. There are other models out there, most notably Costco and Trader Joe's, which believe that by giving their employees higher wages and good benefits, they can reduce turnover and provide better service, which lowers costs and increases sales. And it works: they've achieved steady growth and excellent profits by making their employees happy.
But the idea that the way to deal with employees is to basically treat them like the enemy, which includes not just paying them as little as possible but also reacting to any hint of solidarity among the employees like an outbreak of the Ebola virus, is bred into Wal-Mart's DNA. Think I exaggerate? Back in 2000, 11 meat-cutters at a Wal-Mart in Texas voted to join a union. The company responded by announcing that it was immediately eliminating the meat-cutting departments at 180 stores and switching to pre-packaged meat, and would eventually eliminate the meat-cutting departments at every store in the country. They don't screw around, as the D.C. Council has just discovered.
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