Politics is Personal: How Our Taxes Subsidize Walmart and Hurt Local Workers

We talk a lot about workers in this space— at the Center for Working-Class Studies and in our  Working-Class Perspectives blog—but for the most part we do it on the macro level: massive job losses precipitated by NAFTA and other foreign trade agreements; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; the Walmartization of  America; a stimulus package that pours too much money into the financial institutions that caused the economic meltdown and far too little into job producing infrastructure projects; weak unions; falling wages; vanishing pensions; disappearing health care; fading opportunity.

Sometimes, we’re too focused on the big picture to see how these macro issues affect people in our community.  We have a sense that government’s coddling of business is problematic, but do we really understand why?  We feel in our gut that a neutered union movement leaves working families vulnerable, but can we truly identify with the moms and dads who lie awake at 3:00 A.M. worried that their jobs may evaporate in a week, a month, a year?

Probably not, and that’s too bad, because if we can personalize the devastation caused when the economy stops working for the working class we may actually be able to solve some of the problems that are steadily eroding the American Dream.

For example, I firmly believe that health care reform would have been easier to achieve if, instead of talking about the 47 million people who don’t have health insurance, we gave the problem a face by talking about the 60 year-old woman living down the street who nearly died of colon cancer because she had no health insurance and could not afford to get the follow-up colonoscopies she needed after her first bout with the disease.

That woman, by the way, is my now 75 year-old mother.  She’s a walking, talking advertisement for reform: she had insurance when she first contracted cancer, had it cancelled shortly thereafter, was repeatedly denied coverage because of her pre-existing condition, could not afford the $3,000 per month premium for the only policy she could get, and finally made it to age 65—the point at which she qualified for the government-run health care system that has saved her life repeatedly: Medicare.

If we put my mother and the millions like her who live in every community in the nation out front in the health care debate, would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really be able to call reform advocates commies?  Would the health insurance industry have any credibility at all after callously attempting to kill my mother and thousands like her every year?  The answer to both questions is no.

It’s also way past time to personalize the discussion about the many ways in which working-class taxpayers are subsidizing gargantuan multi-national corporations like Walmart. We’re all familiar with the storyline: state and local governments roll out tax abatements and other incentives to attract the chain.  The Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth comes to town and builds a store that devastates the competition.  Shortly thereafter the store owners and employees who paid the taxes that funded the abatements are out on the street.  Meanwhile, many of the giant retailer’s employees are eligible for food stamps and qualify for Medicaid.  Walmart may save us money at the check-out, but we pay for it in taxes and lost jobs. Even though we all know the story, it is for some inexplicable reason, repeated year after year in community after community.  Why?  Perhaps because the government officials who work so hard to entice Walmart and the residents who breathlessly anticipate its arrival don’t know or have any connection to the people whose lives will be changed forever once the store opens its doors.

So let’s personalize the situation and talk about the new Walmart in Liberty Township, one small business owner who operates in its shadow, and the response of the union that represents his workers.

I’ve known Sandy Zander for a long time. He was my boss when I worked for the grocery chain he helped run. He was a fair-minded and able negotiator when we sat on opposite sides of the table during contract talks, and he’s been a successful small businessman since 1988 when he bought a few stores from the company that employed us until it went of business in the wake of a strike neither of us wanted but couldn’t avoid.  He’s genuinely a good guy.

Today, he and his family own two stores: a Giant Eagle in an upscale township east of Youngstown and Union Square Sparkle, one of the few full-service markets still operating in the distressed city.  Sandy’s stores are unionized, so his workers earn a decent wage and have health care and pension benefits.  For two decades he’s managed to survive despite the fact that he’s competing with non-union operators whose wage cost is much lower than his.

In Poland his main competitor is Henry Nemenz.  Henry’s been in the grocery business a long time.  He’s always been a non-union, low-wage, no benefits operator who profits by exploiting his employees.  His owns only a handful of stores, and the Zanders clean his clock every week.  When you drive by the two markets, which are located across the street from each other, you notice two things.  First, there are ten times more cars in the Giant Eagle lot and, second, the UFCW is conducting informational picketing at Nemenz.  The union is spending a lot of money to let people know that Henry’s non-union.  Good for them.

In Youngstown, Sandy’s main competitor is the new Walmart that Liberty Township officials begged for on bended knee.  When you drive by the two stores, which are located less than a half mile apart, you’ll notice two things: first, there are a lot of cars at Walmart and far fewer at Sandy’s than there used to be and, second, there is no UFCW picket line even though Walmart is every bit as bad an employer as Nemenz.

Picket line or no picket line, Sandy will continue to dominate the market in Poland.  But in Youngstown the prospects are not quite as bright.  If people continue to flock to Walmart, Sandy, his store, his workers, and the neighborhood he’s served for two decades could be in trouble.  His employees will lose their good jobs, their health care benefits, and their pensions.  Youngstown will lose the income taxes they pay, and 30 or 40 more city residents will be added to the unemployment rolls.  All because Liberty Township went out and bought themselves a Walmart.

Maybe, just maybe, if the UFCW decided to stand in front of the new store and make sure that people knew that every dollar they spent was putting a neighbor or friend in jeopardy they’d think twice about going in.  Maybe, just maybe, if the union decided to air some ads that highlighted the importance of good-paying retail jobs to the community customers would make different decisions about where they shop.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start fighting back — one township and one worker at a time.

Leo Jennings

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7 Responses to Politics is Personal: How Our Taxes Subsidize Walmart and Hurt Local Workers

  1. lupe says:

    I agree something must be done about healthcare, insurance companies are a rip-off. I also sometimes fear that some people might not be aware of more local resources.
    Was there no other public insurance option for your mother? My mother, age 60 and uninsured, qualified for MISP (medically indigent services program) . It is a program offered through our county, Riverside, CA and was set up in 1983 for anyone 21 – 64 yrs that doesn’t qualify for medical/medicare. We found out about the program at our local clinic. It covers costs of services required (tests, visits, surgery, etc). Only stipulation is that all services must be at county clinics and county hospital (except e.r. visits) but that’s not a bad thing, the hospital is a few years new & has received excellent ratings. I also have a friend (male, 30’s, no kids) who received all medical care & rehabilitation for a shoulder surgery under MISP. I haven’t researched whether this program exists in other CA counties or just Riverside.


  2. Jack Labusch says:

    We’ll get universal health care with explicit cost controls, eventually, and my personal hunch is America’s creditor nations will have more to do with it than anyone can yet imagine. Health reform prodded by Beijing and Riyadh?

    Surveying the record of the Obamacare debate, a future President may conclude that the urging of finance ministers in far-off capitals that America get its economic house in order may be a more persuasive goad to resolute health care action by Constitutional brute force than confused public opinion and a Congress that are both controlled by the AMA and AHIP, the medical and insurance lobbies. Who knows the effect on whatever remains of citizen-sovereignty when Tokyo proves a better guide to the fiscal and physical health of Topeka, than, uh, Topeka?

    Health care action at the grass roots level? Well, maybe, but most of our medically insureds are immunized against thought and action by an opportunistic misreading of Congress’s 1986 EMTALA legislation that says there’s a default Government doctor in every ER doling out free health care to the uninsured. Our medically insureds are okay with the denial of health care because the denial of health care is presumed by them to never actually occur.

    I’ve listened, almost stupefied, as a worker who’s Medicare-qualified, insured by his employer as a contractually qualifying worker, and by his wife’s employer as a contractually qualifying dependent, both together insured to the tune of about $3000 a month, say that health insurance isn’t really important because “those people” (uninsured folks) get it for free. A high-powered attorney and legal counsel for a major NE Ohio employer once said the corporation found it too costly to insure a handful of uninsured part-time workers, although it had no problem covering many hundreds of non-worker contractually qualifying dependents, and dozens of workers already insured as dependents of their spouses’ employer-paid and uncoordinated insurance plans.

    How do you cut through this sort of big-time entrenched willful ignorance? You don’t.


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  4. Rick says:

    Unionized labor is actually anti worker, as exemplified by its desire to throw the employees of the Nemenz stores out of work. 40 people in Hubbard lost their jobs due to the UFCW, and if they get their way maybe a hundred or so more will also become unemployed. One of the greatest failings of the union movement is the willingness to accept and push for the loss of non union jobs, even if it does not result in a gain in union jobs.

    When will the UFCW begin picketing the Liberty WalMart? Maybe hire some of those former Hubbard Nemenz employees to walk around with signs. BTW does the UFCW pay union scale to picket sign holders? Minimum $15/hr. with benefits for working in a hazardous location in close proximity to the street inhaling fumes dust without PPE. Maybe I need to organize those poor picketers so they can fight for their rights!


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  7. GeoGee says:

    This is an excellent piece on how Walmart has a long term corrosive effect on the communities it infiltrates. I agree, people don’t see the big picture, because if they did, they would realize as your piece so eloquently illustrates, in the end, Walmart actually is costing them money.
    A thought all should ponder: During the recent economical downturn that affected almost every one , How many Walmarts closed their doors? A look into that question would wake a lot of people up.



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