Thanksgiving time at Wal-Mart is the public relations gift that keeps on giving for the labor movement.
After facing criticism for announcing plans to expand Black Friday sales further into Thanksgiving day, forcing workers to spend their holiday with deal-seeking hordes instead of their families, the retail giant is again catching flak after employees at its Canton, Ohio, store decided to organize a Thanksgiving food drive for fellow workers. Multiple collection bins were set up in an employee-only area with a sign that read: "Please donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner."
The gesture was obviously well intentioned. But it raises the question: Are Wal-Mart employees paid so poorly that they can’t afford to have a Thanksgiving meal?
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This is the second year in a row that the Canton store has compiled a food pantry for its own workers. Last year, 12 associates out of about 300 employees needed food from the donation drive.
That Wal-Mart employees are struggling financially (while the company thrives) should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. At least half of Wal-Mart employees make what’s considered poverty-level wages for a family of four. For the last year, Wal-Mart employees have been rallying, striking and often facing arrest in an effort to fight for a minimum annual salary of $25,000.
This month the liberal think tank Demos released a report that showed Wal-Mart spent $7.6 million last year to buy back shares of its own stock in an effort to shore up the price. If that money had been spent on workers instead, Demos found that Wal-Mart could have raised employee hourly wages by $5.83 -- easily enough to cover a $25,000 salary for full-time work. In 2012, the company’s CEO, Mike Duke, made $23.15 million -- 1,034 times more than the median Wal-Mart employee.
Yet, despite all these horrific facts, it is Wal-Mart’s complete inability to take care of its employees around holiday time that seems to be generating the kind of public sympathy for change that decades of labor movement PR efforts and liberal economic analyses have not.
Here’s hoping that sympathy finally leads to change. Because as earnest as the Canton Wal-Mart employees may be in their effort to help fellow workers, Wal-Mart workers don’t want handouts on Thanksgiving. They want, and deserve, to be able to afford their own meal.
Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.