By: Cameron Sidhe, Managing Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In a startling move late last month, WalMart announced to employees that it would begin offering health benefits and other services to “domestic partners” of employees, which includes same-sex couples. Domestic partners will be defined as those who have been living with the employee for at least twelve months in an exclusive relationship. This historic change was iterated to employees in a postcard discussing changes in benefits, including changes in its vision plan.
The change, while not contrary to public opinion or gaining legal precedent, is regarded as promising because of WalMart’s well-documented history of poor treatment of its employees, and demonstrates that consumer choices are becoming increasingly politicized in the age of social media. Reclaim Democracy, a blog dedicated to corporation transparency and consumer education, made public a document entitled “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union-Free,” a 1997 manual of tactics to prevent employees from unionizing in order to help WalMart continue to pay its employees as poorly as possible and withhold the benefits of unionization. Sam’s Club, a subsidiary company of WalMart, has been repeatedly compared to its main competitor Costco and found to be lacking in its protection and benefits to employees. Unlike many other Fortune 500 companies, WalMart has staunchly resisted increasing wages or offering attractive benefits packages to its workers, and has been widely regarded as exploitative and conservative in its corporate policies.
Why is WalMart making such a progressive move? The announcement may have less to do with an underlying sympathy for same-sex couples and more about public opinion and legal stipulations. In June, the Supreme Court overturned a federal law which denied benefits to same-sex couples, which, despite currently only pertaining to legally married partners, suggests a move toward more stringent anti-discrimination policies in the workforce. WalMart, rather than acting on a corporate culture of equality, may simply be attempting to stay ahead of federal requirements by enacting policies more in line with future changes to benefits laws. As a large corporation needs time to process and enforce new laws or internal policies, staying ahead of the law prevents legal issues and protects the company from censure by the federal government or watchdog agencies.
Public opinion toward same-sex couples has also changed tremendously in recent years, and, coupled with the explosion of social media networks, means that companies hoping to stay in business need to demonstrate a commitment to progressive ideals or face a dwindling demographic. While homophobia remains rampant in certain areas, a powerful gay-rights lobby and increasingly liberal young adults regularly flood conservative businesses with boycotts, petitions, protests, and amplify their message through savvy use of technology. WalMart, just like any other company, relies on positive press to boost stocks, and staying in line with public opinion remains a powerful way to prevent falling sales.
However, WalMart’s move may not be as philanthropic as it seems. Just as with many other companies, the big-box employer requires a minimum of 30 hours per week to be eligible for health benefits, and in recent years WalMart has continually frustrated employee attempts to receive benefits by hiring more workings and giving each worker less hours. The premium for their health insurance also remains above the means of many of its workers because of their underhanded shift assignment policies. Still notoriously anti-union, the company remains willing to fire those who complain about a lack of horrors, knowing that in a depressed economy with high unemployment rates, any whistleblower’s position can quickly be filled by another. While progressive new benefits packages seem an exciting new step forward, underneath the façade of equality, a legacy of worker abuse and mistreatment remains.