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Company store: Pullman to Wal-Mart

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Wal-Mart’s effort to move into Pullman invites a comparison of the 21st century company store with the 19th century version.

“The parallels are almost too obvious too mention,” said Jeff Helgeson, a Pullman resident who teaches labor studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  “There’s a sense in which [Wal-Mart] is very much like the model community of Pullman.”

Built by George Pullman as a planned community for workers at his railroad car plant, the town of Pullman was “celebrated internationally as a utopia,” but “within 15 years was the scene of one of the largest labor strikes in U.S. history,” Helgeson said.  He’s one of a group of neighborhood residents who’ve organized Labor Day celebrations [2] to mark Pullman’s history.

Like Wal-Mart, the Pullman Company paid lower wages than other employers. (In 2004 a University of California-Berkeley study [3] found Wal-Mart’s wages for non-managerial employees were 31 percent lower than the average retail wage; Chicago’s Center for Labor and Community Research [4] estimated that Wal-Mart wages were $2 to $3 below those of its competitors.)

Both companies banned trade unions.  Both companies are known for spying [5] on their workers to prevent any stirrings of organization.

The Pullman Company also owned every home, every store, every school, and every church in the town – even the town library – until the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the sale of all non-manufacturing property in 1898, ruling that company towns are “opposed to good public policy and incompatible with the theory and spirit of our institutions.”

A low-income cycle

Wal-Mart has commonly been called a “company store” because, in economist R.J. Eskow’s words at Huffington Post [6], “Wal-Mart lowers your living standards then sells you cheap goods that are all you can afford.”

“Wal-Mart has created and perpetuated a low-income cycle of worker/consumer,” said Al Norman of Wal-Mart Watch [7] in an interview with Grist [8].  “Wal-Mart’s 1.5 million workers have to shop at the company store because they can’t afford to shop elsewhere. It’s a great closed-loop system, akin to a plantation where the field workers went to the company store with their day’s wages.”

“In a chilling reversal of Henry Ford’s strategy, which was to pay his workers amply so they could buy Ford cars, Wal-Mart’s stingy compensation policies…contribute to an economy in which, increasingly, workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart,” wrote Liz Featherstone in the Nation [9] in 2004.

A couple years later Barbara Ehrenreich [10] wrote of “signs… that Wal-Mart was beginning to be priced out of the reach of its own employees.”  Workers getting $8 or $9 an hour buy their clothes at thrift stores, she pointed out, and the store’s electronics and lawn and garden products “weren’t even on the distant horizon.”

In at least one other country, an old-school solution was attempted – company scrip.  But in September 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ordered Wal-Mart’s Mexican subsidiary to stop paying its employees in vouchers redeemable only at Wal-Marts.  (The company called the program its “Social Welfare Plan,” according to one report [11].)

The court held that the practice was “similar to what happened in old company stores” that were outlawed by the constitution of 1917, Reuters [12] reported.

Food stamps: a double boost

Another approach may be on view in Wal-Mart’s store on Chicago’s West Side.  Employees there interviewed by Chicagoist [13] said “the company purposely cut worker’s hours [so they] can remain eligible for the Link Card,” the state’s food assistance program.

“There’s a lot of workers on Link,” says one employee, and when workers’ hours are cut, their Link Card allocation goes up.  And “shoppers that use their Link card at Wal-Mart include many Wal-Mart employees,” according to Chicagoist.

The use of public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid by underpaid Wal-Mart employees has long been an issue.  In 2004 California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber released Wal-Mart’s “Instructions to Employees” telling them how to sign up for food stamps and health assistance.  “Public assistance is very clearly part of the retailer’s cost-cutting strategy,” Featherstone wrote.

But with Wal-Mart supercenters now selling food – and accepting Link Cards – the company gets a double boost to its bottom line.

The old company store merely recouped the wages the employer had paid out.  In this innovative twist, the money paid by taxpayers to supplement Wal-Mart’s low wages can now be spent at Wal-Mart, contributing even further to the Walton family’s riches.

It gives an entirely new meaning to the term “corporate welfare.”