Job Actions Have Wal-Mart Running Scared

Walmart_strikeIt’s déjà vu all over again at Wal-Mart. Returning to its customary practice of using intimidation to respond to demands for improved working conditions, the company recently began firing some of the “associates” who participated in strikes at its stores. Other workers are being disciplined under the pretext of violating Wal-Mart’s attendance policy.

While this is bad news for the workers affected, the use of heavy-handed tactics is a sign that the company is worried about the historic job actions that have been spreading through its U.S. operations. If Wal-Mart really believed its claims that the OUR Walmart group spearheading the protests has limited support among the company’s massive workforce, then it would be ignoring the movement rather than desperately trying to squelch it.

The current wave of firings is actually an escalation of repressive policies that the company has been implementing since OUR Walmart began ramping up its campaign in 2011. A report released in May by American Rights at Work found that the company has been responding to the activism by disguising acts of retaliation as legitimate discipline or routine enforcement of company policy. Accusing Wal-Mart of fostering a “climate of fear,” the report also documented ways in which the company violated federal labor law by denying OUR Walmart members and organizers access for protected concerted activity.

Such actions continue a tradition of anti-union animus that has characterized Wal-Mart since its earliest years. While some have sought to romanticize founder Sam Walton and pin the blame for the company’s notorious labor policies on his successors, it was Sam himself who first brought in union-busting consultants when some members of his then much smaller workforce began to talk about organizing in the 1970s. The investment paid off for management. For example, after about half of the workers at a Wal-Mart warehouse in Searcy, Arkansas signed cards in support of Teamsters representation in the early 1980s, the consultants used the run-up to the election to scare the workforce into ultimately voting more than three-to-one against the union.

This scenario would play out again and again, both in the United States and Canada. For example, in 1997 the Ontario Labor Relations Board ruled that Wal-Mart had violated Canadian law by intimidating workers in the period preceding a representation election involving the United Steelworkers union. As a result, the board certified the Steelworkers, even though a majority of workers had voted against the union. The company, however, simply refused to bargain with the union.

In 2000 a small group of courageous meatcutters at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas voted for representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Within two weeks, the company announced that it was shutting down the meatcutting operations at that store and at more than 175 more in six states. The NLRB later ruled that the company had violated federal labor law by refusing to discuss the closing with the workers who had chosen union representation, but the issue was by then moot.

In 2001 the UFCW said it was launching a national organizing drive at Wal-Mart, but it focused on a few areas such as Las Vegas, where it engaged in a fierce battle with a slew of anti-union specialists flown in from corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Years later, the NLRB found that the company had engaged in various unfair labor practices, but by then the organizing effort had fizzled out. Looking back on the situation, the Las Vegas Sun published an article headlined WAL-MART BREAKS THE LAW, GETS PUNISHED, WINS ANYWAY.

Wal-Mart’s labor relations practices have been so egregious that they go beyond regulatory infractions and enter the realm of human rights abuses. It’s thus no surprise that Human Rights Watch, which typically analyzes atrocities in dictatorial governments, once published a report concluding Wal-Mart violated the right of its workers to freedom of association.

The problem for current Wal-Mart management is that its workers are more difficult to intimidate than they were in the past. Organizing efforts used to be limited to single locations; now OUR Walmart, using non-traditional tactics, is operating in many places and can mobilize large numbers of people, as seen in last year’s Black Friday job actions as well as the recent strikes and the protests at the company’s annual meeting.

One way Wal-Mart management is responding to the growing solidarity is by increasing its use of a category of worker it believes it can more readily control: temps. The company traditionally used such contingent workers only during the holiday season. Recently there have been reports that some Wal-Mart stores are hiring only temps.

So much for those TV ads that sought to portray a job at Wal-Mart as the stepping-stone to a career.

Subsidy Megadeals for Megacorporations

moneybagsThe Miami Herald recently published a story with the headline “Amazon Doesn’t Need Tax Incentives, But Localities Offer Millions in Tax Breaks.” Throwing large sums of money at large corporations in a desperate attempt to create jobs is an affliction not limited to public officials in Florida. It is a wasteful and self-defeating public policy that can be found throughout the United States.

An indication of just how pervasive the practice has become can be found in a new report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just issued. The title is Megadeals, and it is a look back at the largest state and local subsidy packages of the past three decades.

In the course of five months of painstaking research, we identified 240 of those packages with a total value of at least $75 million each; the aggregate cost is more than $64 billion. Many of them reach into nine and even ten figures. There are eleven deals costing $1 billion or more in public money.

Most astounding are the costs per job. The average for our 240 megadeals is $456,000 and there are 18 for which the cost per job is $1 million or more.

Megadeals have been awarded to many of the largest and best known companies based in the United States as well as foreign ones doing business here, including: General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and just about every other large automaker; oil giants such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell; aerospace leaders Boeing and Airbus; banks such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs; media companies such as Walt Disney and its subsidiary ESPN; retailers such as Sears and Cabela’s; old-line industrials such as General Electric and Dow Chemical; and tech stars such as, Apple, Intel and Samsung.

Sixteen of the Fortune 50 are represented. Not included is the company atop of the Fortune list: Wal-Mart. That’s not because Wal-Mart doesn’t receive subsidies—Good Jobs First has separately documented more than $1.2 billion in such taxpayer assistance in our Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch website—but its deals have been worth less than $75 million each and thus don’t qualify for our list.

The most expensive single listing is a 30-year discounted-electricity deal worth an estimated $5.6 billion given to aluminum producer Alcoa by the New York Power Authority. Taking all of a company’s megadeals into account, Alcoa is at the top with its single $5.6 billion deal, followed by Boeing (four deals worth a total of $4.4 billion), Intel (six deals worth $3.6 billion), General Motors (11 deals worth $2.7 billion), Ford Motor (9 deals worth $2.1 billion), Nike (1 deal worth $2 billion) and Nissan (four deals worth $1.8 billion).

The overall costs of megadeals have risen over the past three decades (in current dollars). The megadeals from the 1980s averaged $157 million. The average rose to $175 million in the 1990s and $325 million in the 2000s. It then declined to $260 million in the 2010s. The average for the list as a whole is $269 million.

Some of the deals involve little if any new-job creation; indeed, one in ten of the deals involves the mere relocation of an existing facility, usually within the same state and often a short distance. Some of these retention deals were granted in so-called job blackmail episodes in which a company threatened to move jobs out of state unless it got new tax breaks or other subsidies.

The megadeals list is a new enhancement of Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker database, the first compilation of company-specific data on economic development deals from around the country.

Until now, the content of Subsidy Tracker has consisted exclusively of official disclosure data provided by state and local governments. The information has been obtained from government websites and from direct requests to agencies.  Given the limitations of the disclosure practices among state and local governments—and often from program to program within jurisdictions—the exclusive reliance on official data meant that Subsidy Tracker was missing information on many large deals that had been reported in the media. Either those deals were missing entirely if there was no official disclosure for the programs involved, or else Tracker had incomplete data if some but not all of the programs used in the package were disclosed.

To rectify this problem, we went back and collected information on large deals using a variety of sources, including press releases, newspaper articles and reports on specific projects as well as the official data we already had. The results went into the creation of the megadeals list and have been incorporated into Subsidy Tracker.

Note: The page containing the Megadeals report also has a link to a spreadsheet with full details on all 240 of the deals.

Corporate Privacy is Alive and Well

we-the-corporations02-e1294670618870Recent revelations about the electronic surveillance programs of the federal government, which are being carried out with the cooperation of large telecommunications and internet companies, show that personal privacy rights are in serious peril.

Much is being said and written about the discrepancy between the seemingly invincible status of the Second Amendment and the disintegrating Fourth Amendment. Yet the more significant contrast may be between individuals and corporations with regard to privacy and protection from government intrusion.

Despite all the complaints from business groups about the supposedly overbearing Obama Administration, large corporations have it pretty good. This is especially the case in the matter of taxes.

Although the finances of publicly traded companies are supposed to be an open book, firms are not required to make public their tax returns. This allows them to conceal the inconsistencies between what they disclose to shareholders and what they report to Uncle Sam. The recent report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about tax dodging by Apple showed there was a $4.4 billion discrepancy between the FY2011 tax liability presented in the company’s 10-K annual report and what it listed in its corporate tax return (which the committee had to subpoena).

Revelations about Apple and other tax dodging companies has not resulted in any action by Congress. The European Union, by contrast, is moving ahead with a transparency initiative that will thwart tax avoidance and illegal financial flows.

Anti-corruption and pro-transparency groups in the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition have been pressing the Obama Administration to support a plan, backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, to require the registration of owners of shell companies—a move that would make illicit financial transfers more difficult. The idea will be discussed at the upcoming G8 summit, but there is little indication that Obama, much less the U.S. Congress, is prepared to sign on to Cameron’s “transparency revolution.”

Large corporations enjoy a great deal of privacy with regard to state as well as federal tax liabilities. Publicly traded companies are required only to disclose aggregate figures on the taxes they are paying (or not paying) to the states overall, making it impossible to get a clue on how much dodging is going on in individual states. Although there have been efforts at times to compel publicly traded companies to make public their state tax returns, those documents remain as private as their federal returns.

Corporate financial statements are also usually devoid of any information on the billions of dollars companies receive each year in economic development subsidies from state and local governments. There has, however, been progress in piercing the corporate privacy veil in this arena, but it is mixed.

At the state level, disclosure is better than it has ever been, but there is a great deal of inconsistency from state to state and from program to program within states. Much of the transparency progress relates to grant and low-cost loans, while the tax breaks—which are often the big-ticket items—lag. Fewer than half the states post a significant amount of information online about corporate tax credits.

And as my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First showed in a recent report, disclosure is even more primitive among most large cities and counties. All the disclosed data is collected in our Subsidy Tracker search engine.

Taxes and subsidies are not the only areas in which corporate privacy remains strong. There are also serious limitations, for example, in what companies have to reveal about their labor practices. Even publicly traded companies are providing less and less in their 10-K annual reports about collective bargaining. Reading the 10-K of Wal-Mart, for instance, you would never know that it has fought tooth-and-nail against unions and is now facing a non-traditional organizing campaign. Whether they are sympathetic or not to the goals of the campaign, shouldn’t shareholders at least be told that it exists and what the company is doing in response?

As poor as the transparency rules are for publicly traded companies, they shine in connection with the absence of significant requirements with regard to privately held firms. The secrecy afforded to family-controlled mega-corporations such as Koch Industries and Cargill is a serious public policy problem.

While companies such as Facebook and Google claim to be sympathetic to the concerns of their customers about government surveillance, they continue to enjoy a higher level of privacy. Corporations have been aggressive in asserting First Amendment rights equivalent to those of natural persons, but when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, they seem to be ahead of us humans.

How Taxpayers Subsidize Union Avoidance by Wal-Mart and Nissan

walmart strikeMost Americans have been made to believe that they have no stake in private sector labor issues. Unions, we are told, are irrelevant to the working life of the vast majority of the population, whose economic fate is supposedly being determined solely by their employers or by individual skills in maneuvering through the labor market.

This narrative, however, is being challenged by organizing campaigns that are taking on two giant corporations – Wal-Mart and Nissan – and showing that collective action is not defunct. And two reports related to the campaigns show that not only the workers involved, but also taxpayers in general, have a stake in their outcome.

For the past 30 years, Wal-Mart has fought bitterly against the efforts of its employees to organize for better pay and benefits. It showed no hesitation in firing workers who supported union drives and routinely closed down operations where successful representation elections were held.

A new wave of non-traditional organizing by Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart has revived the prospects for change at the giant retailer. Strikes have become a frequent occurrence at Wal-Mart stores in recent weeks, and large numbers of Wal-Mart workers and their supporters have been converging on Bentonville, Arkansas to make their voices heard at the company’s annual meeting.

A recent report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce is a reminder that taxpayers are put in a position of subsidizing the low wages and poor benefits that the Wal-Mart campaigners are protesting. The study, which updates a 2004 report by the committee, reviews the hidden taxpayer costs stemming from the fact that many Wal-Mart workers have no choice but to use social safety net programs—such as Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit—that were designed for individuals not in the labor force or those working for small companies that failed to provide decent compensation, not a leviathan with $17 billion in annual profits.

The Democratic staff report estimates that today the workers in a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter (Wisconsin is used as the example) make use of programs that cost taxpayers at least $904,542 a year and possibly as much as $1.7 million. Since Wal-Mart has more than 3,000 Supercenters in the U.S., plus hundreds of other types of stores, those costs run into the billions.

Nissan has been following in Wal-Mart’s footsteps in Mississippi, where it opened a large assembly plant a decade ago. The plant brought several thousand direct jobs to the state, but the problem is that many of the jobs are substandard. The company makes extensive use of temps, who are currently paid only about $12 an hour.

In response to the use of temps as well as issues concerning the conditions faced by regular employees, Nissan workers have been organizing themselves with the help of the United Auto Workers. Rather than accepting labor representation, as it does in numerous other countries, Nissan is seeking to intimidate workers using the usual toolbox of union avoidance techniques such as threats and bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda.  The workers, however, have been bolstered by strong community support from groups such as the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently issued a report commissioned by the UAW documenting the extent to which Nissan has enjoyed lavish tax breaks and other financial assistance from state and local government agencies. We found that the subsidies, which were originally estimated at around $300 million when the company first came to the state in 2000, have mushroomed to the point that they could be worth some $1.3 billion. That works out to some $290,000 per job. Noting the over-dependence on temps, we state that Mississippi taxpayers are paying “premium amounts for jobs that in many cases are far from premium.”

Although it was outside the scope of our report, it is clear that the Nissan temps, like the Wal-Mart workers, are also generating hidden taxpayer costs through their use of safety net programs. And we have previously documented that Wal-Mart frequently gets the kind of economic development subsidies Nissan is enjoying in Mississippi.

Whether through hidden taxpayer costs or job subsidies, the public is frequently put in the position of aiding companies like Wal-Mart and Nissan that disregard labor rights while failing to pay their fair share of the cost of government. Perhaps the interests of taxpayers and workers are not so different after all.