Filler: Walmart's formula keeps thousands employed

Protesters rally outside of the Walmart in Valley

Protesters rally outside of the Walmart in Valley Stream to demand higher wages and the reinstatement of Walmart workers fired for speaking out about company pay and other working conditions. (Sept 5, 2013) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Shopping at Walmart is a mixed blessing. The stores are at times disorganized and dirty, the staffs surly and harried. If you need assistance, the best strategy is to sneak into the next aisle while your child isn't looking, and hope that his or her tears attract an employee.

As a worker soothes your kid, you swoop in, shrieking, "Where are the microwaveable frozen crustless peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and the 144-packs of Mountain Dew?"

But then you go to check out and the employee, using what looks like a cash register but must be a time machine, quotes a total out of 1978. And the low, low prices make it worthwhile. Sort of.

Shopping at Walmart is like being paid to be simultaneously punched in the gut, aggressively tickled and rubbed all over with cotton candy. Some think it's worth it, others don't.

It's often pointed out that Walmart manages to keep its prices so low, the experience so dismal and the demeanor of its employees so poor by paying low wages. This is true. It's also suggested that these employees are, in fact, underpaid.

That's not true at all, even though the average worker makes about $9 per hour.

The underpaying of Walmart workers came up last week with a story about an Ohio location where bins had been set out with signs that read, "Please donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner." That's a delicious irony, and the fact that every company I've worked for has collected food, clothing and money to help employees in specific need, which Walmart says was the point of this collection, doesn't make it any less of an effective arrow for those who say Walmart abuses workers.

Adding heft to this accusation, a report released by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated that one Walmart employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers $900,000 annually, as some employees qualified for public assistance programs.

These are great stats, convincingly employed. But there are two issues here, and they can't be dealt with as one.

The first is that there's such a surplus of unskilled labor that it doesn't command enough pay to provide all that workers need. These people aren't, in any market sense, being underpaid. If they were, they'd either be hired away by a better-paying employer or stop showing up at Walmart.

They're making the best trade they can of services for compensation. The services of the unskilled have little value today, and they often haven't. Farmhands traditionally didn't have a pot to boil potatoes in. We only think the unskilled should be economically stable because we're just exiting a 100-year industrial period during which working on a line, manufacturing textiles and autos and refrigerators, could provide prosperity. That era was not the norm, and it's over.

Separate from the unskilled labor glut is the idea that everyone has a right to food, clothing, shelter and health care.

But Walmart's not responsible for the societal feeling that everybody ought to have everything they need. Walmart is pursuing a business plan based on selling much to many at the lowest possible cost.

If that's a bad business plan, and treating workers that way and creating a shopping experience that cut-rate is unacceptable to Americans, Walmart will fail. If it's a good business plan, Walmart will keep on keeping on, which is good news for the 1.4 million Americans it employs, who can't make more elsewhere, and the hundreds of millions of economically challenged folks who need the low prices Walmart offers.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.