T   he headline at the top of the York Dispatch business page said, "Wal-Mart plans to boost economy."

And then the secondary headline read: "VETERANS: The company plans to hire 100,000 veterans, buy more American-made goods."

Right away, I'm thinking someone was blowing smoke up my you know what.

Not that Wal-Mart couldn't boost the economy if it really wanted to. It could. It is, after all, the largest company in America and the largest company in the world in terms of annual revenue and number of employees -- not counting, of course, the U.S. Department of Defense, which employs 3.2 million people.

A little context is in order here.

In 1955, the largest employer in the United States was General Motors with 576,667 workers. Today, that number has shrunk down to 204,000. Runner-up in 1955 was U.S. Steel, then in order: General Electric, Chrysler, Exxon, Amoco, CBS, AT&T, Goodyear and Firestone to fill out the top 10.

You'll notice that almost all of those companies from 57 years ago were somehow connected to the auto industry -- cars, steel, tires, gasoline, etc.

Good-paying jobs.

That's no longer the case.

Today, in order from one to 10 are: Wal-Mart, IBM, UPS, McDonald's, Target, Kroger, Hewlett-Packard, Sears Holding Corp., PepsiCo and Bank of America.

Different ballgame. Different pay structure, as well. Workers at half of those companies would be hard-pressed to earn a living wage.


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Around 1955, the American autoworker earned about $100 a week, which doesn't sound like much by today's standards, but made him/her the best-paid blue collar worker in the world.

According to John Barnard in "American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers During the Reuther Years," Autoworkers, in 1955, were "solidly middle class in economic standing, able to support middle-class levels and habits of consumption."

And General Motors was the top private employer in this country 57 years ago, in terms of workforce size and wages being paid. It was large enough to have an effect on the national economy.

The same cannot be said of employees working for the top private employer in America today.

Now if the headline in The York Dispatch had read: IBM or Hewlett-Packard or UPS or Microsoft had plans to boost the American economy by hiring 100,000 veterans and paying them an honest-to-goodness living wage, that would indeed be something to get excited about.

In fact, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have already begun a practice of hiring veterans within their companies, but not in the numbers Wal-Mart is talking about. And nothing so grand it will boost the overall economy.

The truth of the matter is that Wal-Mart has long been accused of not paying most of its 1.4 million workers in the United States a living wage. It's been sued thousands of times and lost huge sums of money in court in the last 10 years for its hiring and wage practices.

It has a history of not paying an hourly rate that would allow its employees to live above the national poverty rate.

Because $10 an hour or less is not going to cut it, especially if the person earning that amount of money happens to be the primary breadwinner in his/her home. It might work as the backup earnings in a two-income household.

But if a family of two or four people hopes to make ends meet on $10 an hour or less, it's not going to happen in America today.

So I'm thinking there will be 100,000 veterans who might opt to remain in the military rather than come home to a job with Wal-Mart earning $10 an hour.

Hey, this is great public relations for Wal-Mart if people don't look at it too closely. It's trying to improve its image, and I don't blame them. Oh boy, what a patriotic company -- it's going to hire 100,000 veterans.

For what, $10 an hour? C'mon. These men and women are coming home after serving their country in the Middle East and they're going to have to settle for jobs that don't pay well enough to support their families?

And most of those jobs are going to be part-time, so Wal-Mart doesn't even have to provide insurance and benefits.

Boost the economy, my foot. Jumpstart a sluggish economy, my eye.

It is worthwhile remembering that Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once said, "I pay low wages. I can take advantage of that. We're going to be successful, but the basis is a very low-wage, low-benefit model of employment."

And we expect veterans to buy into that?

Hey, it's a wonderful thing Wal-Mart is doing if it follows through on its plan to buy more American-made goods. Same for hiring 100,000 veterans, if the pay is right.

But until I hear Wal-Mart has decided to up the ante for most of its workers by paying $15 to $18 an hour -- full time and with benefits -- I'm not expecting this promise to pay many dividends for the U.S. economy.

And I suspect American veterans will have nothing to do with it, either.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhick s@yorkdispatch.com.