Will Mike Duke Help Wal-Mart Workers Live Better?

This week, Wal-Mart introduced Mike Duke as its new CEO. Regrettably, there is little evidence that he will bring new ideas with him. Like Lee Scott, David Glass and Sam Walton before him -- Mike Duke is a company man who has been with Wal-Mart since 1995. For the past 13 years he has helped run a company that has consistently chosen to underpay its workers to the benefit of the richest family in America -- the Waltons.

The result has been that the company, the communities in which it operates, and our country have all suffered. Wal-Mart's poor treatment of its workers is a real problem that has grown into a public relations disaster. Whether it's locking employees in stores, forcing workers to clock out yet continue to work, or denying prompt treatment to injured workers, Wal-Mart has become the poster child for how an employer should not behave. The consequence for Wal-Mart has been marked resistance from geographic and demographic markets the company needs in order to grow. The consequences for communities and the country have been lower earnings and a poorer economy.

The company's relationship with today's recession is unique. Wal-Mart and the Walton Family are making billions in profit, primarily from low-income shoppers who need Wal-Mart, and middle and upper class shoppers who have opted to trade down and shop at Wal-Mart while times are tough. Yet Wal-Mart has perpetuated the recession by refusing to share any of the wealth with its 1.4 million workers. Even at full-time hours they aren't paid enough to support a family in America today.

Wal-Mart tells the world that its average wage is $10.86 an hour. At that wage, a full time employee is likely living below the poverty line - especially if he/she has any family to support. But that's not the real story. The "average" wage is skewed by geographical differences and by the few employees who are making far more than the average. The reality is most hourly Wal-Mart workers are making far less than $10.86. If Mike Duke releases Wal-Mart's median wage data, then the public will know what life is really like for Wal-Mart workers.

While there are many ways that Mike Duke can make Wal-Mart a better company, the first order of business is clear. He has to finally start giving its employees the respect and quality of life they deserve - by raising their wages. If Mike Duke boosts his workers' wages, it will not only be the right thing to do, but it will stimulate the struggling American economy by putting dollars into the hands of lower-income workers who need it most.

Despite the evidence, I hope that Mike Duke can defy the odds and forge a different path from his predecessors. He has an historic opportunity to turn the page and start doing things the right way at Wal-Mart. While we're hopeful for this, we've watched for years as the company has refused to change.

That's why the Employee Free Choice Act is needed. The Employee Free Choice Act will make it more difficult for Wal-Mart to harass and frighten workers who want to form a union. Those workers who want a union will finally win a seat at the table with Wal-Mart to determine their pay, benefits and working conditions. Under the current laws, it is effectively impossible to unionize Wal-Mart -- even if many workers want one. EFCA will finally give workers the choice they deserve.

Wal-Mart has always referred to its employees as "associates" rather than employees -- because it wants to make them truly feel like part of the family. Now it's time for all of us to make that a reality.