“James, would you mind driving me to Wal-Mart?”
My mother-in-law asked me this question on a day when my wife was at work and I was desperately trying to get some writing accomplished. I knew it was going to be a tough week to entertain, long before Gerry arrived — a clash of union meetings, picketing and writing classes at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.
I was typing at the computer in our small, one-bedroom apartment when she posed the question to me. I tried not to overreact, but I’m sure my eyebrows constricted tighter than I had intended.
“Wal-Mart?” I replied. “You want me to drive you to . . . Wal-Mart?”
She nodded. “I’d like to go the garden center and pick up some things.”
I didn’t want to drive to Wal-Mart, but when it came down to it I decided I would rather be on the wrong side of my union than on the wrong side of my mother-in-law.
I’d already had a rough week of writer’s block. I suppose it was because there was another person in my private space during all that time. When I write I must be alone, in the space of my own thoughts. I had finally found some time to get behind the computer and now my mother-in-law was beside me with her arms crossed, begging for an afternoon drive to Wal-Mart. There was no alone to be found.
I could either be a good son-in-law or an undisciplined writer, or maybe even worse than that — an unethical activist. I rose from my chair of ideas and sulked off to the bedroom to retrieve my shoes. As I struggled with the laces, I pondered the way to tell her that I couldn’t do this. As a devout union activist, I found the errand to run practically against my morals. Hadn’t she heard about Wal-Mart? Didn’t she know its managers vigorously oppose unionization?
Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer and the United States’ largest employer. According to a Business Insider article from 2010 it employs 1.4 million people, which is one percent of the country’s working population.
Yet according to groups like Wake Up Wal-Mart, a campaign founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the massive retailer is getting away with paying its workers substandard wages and health care benefits.
Not a pretty story when you consider that Michael Duke, Wal-Mart’s CEO, had an $18.7 million paycheck last year, which is 750 times the annual pay of a Wal-Mart worker making $12 an hour and working 40 hours a week, according to Too Much, a web commentary exposing the greediest of 2011.
I didn’t want to drive to Wal-Mart. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment, but when it came down to it I decided I would rather be on the wrong side of my union than on the wrong side of my mother-in-law. But I wasn’t eager about it. I put on my red UNITE HERE Local 11 pro-union T-shirt to feel better about myself, but dragged my feet on the way to the car.
Now the only typing I was doing was putting the address for Wal-Mart into the car GPS. I struggled with it. My mother-in-law sighed from the passenger seat. The woman in the GPS started bossing me around with a British accent. I wanted to boycott her, but I also didn’t want to get lost.
And then I got an idea, a wonderful one that would solve my writer’s block, my union ethics dilemma and my mother-in-law problem. I was practically giddy with the idea.
“Gerry, I’m not going into the store with you. I’m sitting in the car.”
She looked at me, puzzled.
I told her all about the saga between unions and Wal-Mart. I informed her of how managers threatened employees with discipline or termination if they tried to unionize. She wasn’t up to speed on much of the debate and so I gladly told her all about it. I talked about the near extinction of Mom and Pop stores that used to be abundant, but that are vanishing now thanks to Wal-Mart. I got really dramatic and spoke of rampant consumerism while the British woman barked orders at me from the dashboard.
After a long discussion about the evils of Wal-Mart Gerry turned to me.
“James, I don’t have to go if you feel that way about it.”
“Oh, no.” I said. You’ve given me a great idea for a story. You must go now. You have to for art’s sake.”
We parked. I watched her walk through the doors. Swallowed by the largest retailer in the world. I started to feel guilty. I felt like an aider and abettor of someone crossing a picket line. What kind of union activist was I?
I looked around at the decaying neighborhood, not an uncommon sight in zones around Wal-Mart. I saw the homeless people, the graffiti and I had a horrible thought – if my mother-in-law gets mugged my wife is going to kill me.