In the past I've said good things about Sam Walton. In his review of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business by Nelson Lichtenstein, Harold Myerson shows me that I had good ol' Sam figured all wrong.
Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million -- a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000. Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton's response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn't exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure. Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check," he told them.I wonder how many former, and maybe even present, Walmart employees still have their checks? Jeff Hess: Have Coffee Will Write.