Our Opinion: Roots of Wal-Mart's mess
When Walmarts in general and the Pittsfield Walmart in particular make the news it is generally for all of the wrong reasons. The most recent example is an unflattering report on the condition of the Pittsfield Walmart that may indicate underlying problems that go beyond untidiness.
Writing for Forbes.com, Walter Loeb, who indicated that he had walked Walmart stores with founder Sam Walton, found the store to be in "total disarray" and an "insult to customers" when he visited recently. He found clothes poorly sorted and presented, if not lying on the floor, and no apparent interest on the part of employees in correcting the situation. An executive from Wal-Mart Stores' New England division acknowledged the problems in a statement and promised that they would be addressed.
Those problems in Pittsfield suggest a morale problem that would be understandable. In 2007, a Berkshire Superior Court ordered Wal-Mart to pay Cynthia Haddad of Pittsfield $1 million in compensation and $1 million in punitive damages after it was found that the 10-year pharmacist at the Pittsfield Walmart had been fired for demanding that she be paid the same wage as male pharmacists. It seemed highly unlikely that this was an isolated case, and indeed it was not.
In 2009, the state Supreme Judicial Court ordered Wal-Mart to pay $40 million to settle the largest wage-and-hour class action suit in state history. The state's Walmarts had been accused of denying rest and meal breaks to employees, denying overtime pay and manipulating time cards to keep pay low. In 2010, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that a class action suit against Wal-Mart for gender discrimination on pay and promotions could go forward, a decision that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It would obviously be cheaper for the retail giant to pay female employees as much as male employees, and pay all of their employees the wages they have earned, then pay seven- and eight-figure cash settlements following court cases brought against them. In a Wal-Mart news item unrelated to the courts, it was reported last year that Wal-Mart had found a loophole in tax laws enabling it to dramatically cut its property taxes. This deprived Pittsfield and North Adams, among other Wal-Mart communities, of significant revenue.
Its mammoth inventory enables Wal-Mart to undersell competitors, including small stores that are the fabric of a community and may be driven out of business. Given this harsh reality of capitalism, Wal-Mart is obligated to be a good neighbor, which means treating customers and employees with respect and not putting an army of lawyers to work to find ways to avoid paying taxes. Wal-Mart has work to do, and it goes beyond the bras lying on the floor of its Pittsfield store.
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