Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What Happens When Workers Have No One To Represent Their Interests

The New York Times has an article about how 34 year-old Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death last Friday as he worked at a Wal-Mart store in Long Island, New York. I'm going to get straight to the point. This was a totally avoidable tragedy and I'm way past exasperated about the way the shoppers in the front of the line are being labeled "savages" and "animals" who should be held responsible for the death of this employee (who was hired as a temporary maintenance worker). Instead of scapegoating, let's put the blame where it belongs and stop letting Wal-Mart off the hook for this.

As anyone who has ever been in the front of a large stampeding crowd knows, those who are closest to the destination point--and can see whatever barriers there might be--are propelled forward by the push of those in the back--who may not be able to see all of the barriers. With a crowd that big and unorganized, the people nearest the doors had no means of controlling whether or not they were pushed forward towards, on top of, and past the employee at the door.

If you put a loose cap on top of a two-liter bottle of shaken up soda, what do you think will happen? The cap is going to get knocked out of place and the soda bubbles are going to go shooting out. But who is responsible for the mess? The coke or the person who knew what could happen but didn't take the proper precautions? No individual bubble is responsible for the mess even if it did come shooting out before all the other bubbles. The person with complete control over how things went goes to the person who created a situation where what resulted was nearly inevitable.

It's not like Wal-Mart doesn't know what works. My partner did his "Black Friday" shopping at Wal-Mart. This store let people line up inside before the sale began. It was organized and well-staffed. No one got hurt and we got a brand new slow-cooker for ten bucks and lots of presents for my niece's first Christmas with our family. My sisters-in-law got game systems for my nephews and new computers for the family.

Wal-Mart made lots of money from sales, which more than exceeded the wages they had to pay the extra workers used to keep things safe and pleasant for the customers. Of course, this incident in Long Island shows that they could have just left all of the customers outside of the store until the beginning of the sale and placed one untrained employee at the doors who was supposed to control a crowd of hundreds of people, but why would they do such a thing?

If Wal-Mart takes bigger risks--at the expense of workers' safety, of course--it may be able to squeeze out even more profit. That might work, but there was the possibility that the crowd would be extremely eager to get inside after standing in the cold weather and the employee could get trampled and they'd have to deal with the resulting lawsuit(s) and handle all of the negative publicity surrounding the tragedy. However, as I said, it might have resulted in a bit more profit. So, it all came down to which one Wal-Mart cared about more: possible damage (i.e. injuries, death) to the employees or the possibility of increasing its profits by not paying for adequate security.

Is it a surprise that Wal-Mart chose to put the employees at risk for the sake of profit? Well, it wasn't a surprise to me because, before I started university, I worked at a few places without union representation. This is standard corporate behavior. The corporation is a for-profit entity. It has no reason to value the safety of employees and customers above all else.

This incident is a perfect example of why Wal-Mart workers need to be able to unionize. Without collective bargaining, the corporation doesn't have to respond to worker's needs. It's easy to ignore individual employees. If one temporary worker or minimum-wage employee complains about or refuses to work in unsafe conditions, the corporation can simply replace her/him with some one else instead of improving the work environment. Wal-Mart has been getting away with this for too long. I don't know if this incident will prove to be a catalyst for change, but I certainly hope this company isn't allowed to keep screwing over everyone else for the sake of outrageous profits.

6 comments:

GallingGalla said...

I believe that you have hit the nail on the head - capitalism values profit more than anything, including people.

The only thing that I'd add is that this behavior often extends to "non-profit" organizations as well. How many colleges value their reputations over making sure that their (women) students are protected from sexual assault?

When it comes to the "non-profit" sector, they just replace monetary profit with profit in prestige / power / public image, but it is the same attitude. I've worked in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors and have seen this in both.

Héctor said...

Yes, Wal-Mart is the one to blame for this tragic incident...
I've been to a few concerts (incluiding the first U2 concert in Mexico in 8 years), so I know that large groups of people behave exactly in the way you've described...
I don't think capitalism is to blame for this. As human beings, we respond to incentives, deciding among alternatives to get the best result possible. What could have prevented this tragedy? Re-aranging the incentives for Wal-Mart (i.e. having a Union that makes sure Wal-Mart protects its employees)...

dmarks said...

As long as union membership is completely voluntary for Walmart workers. That is, that they could work there without being forced to give once cent to the union, if that is their choice. We don't want the unions screwing the workers over too.

Galling has a point about "non-profit". The heads of some of these "non-profit" organizations rake in millions. Even for charities.

dmarks said...

Also, unionization tends to force and encourage companies to fire people, and downsize. So imagine a store having an even smaller staff to handle Black Friday...

dmarks said...

"I believe that you have hit the nail on the head - capitalism values profit more than anything, including people."

And in socialism, it is much the same, but profit primarily for the government.

Héctor said...

Well said dmarks