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The Buzz, 10-24: Attention, Dancers!
Wal-Mart Workers' Sub-Poverty Wages Underwrite a Dance Company

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

It's great that Wal-Mart scion Nancy Walton Laurie is providing the dancers of her Cedar Lake company with their own renovated building in Chelsea, formerly Annie Leibovitz's photography studio, to be unveiled tonight as the company opens its season with new work from Joffrey veteran Jodie Gates, City Ballet alum Edwaard Liang, and artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, formerly of the Ailey. It's laudable that she's providing them with health insurance and paying them enough that they don't have to hold down multiple other jobs but can devote themselves completely to their art.

"Working here has been a dream for all of us," Pouffer tells me, insisting that he's speaking for the dancers as well as himself. (Well, maybe not former employee Dario Vaccaro, who told the New York Times that working for Cedar Lake was "the most horrible experience I've had in my career. They took $75 out of my paycheck because I arrived one day, 34 seconds late." In fact, the Times's intrepid Erika Kinetz reported* Saturday that "...the company has lost a number of members, and the atmosphere at its elegant new Chelsea home seems strangely choked." The Draconian late penalties are no longer in force, said Pouffer, who succeeded the company's first director L. Jan Ballard in May.)

Unfortunately, the Wal-Mart workers who, through their sub-poverty wages, fuel the store profits some of which have no doubt filtered to the dance company through stock-holder Walton Laurie are not afforded the same power to dream as Cedar Lake's dancers, who Walton Laurie refers to in the Times as "my kids." (When a dance company owner or director refers to the adult artists as children, watch out.)

It's great that, by her own statements to the Times and elsewhere and by Pouffer's statement to me, Cedar Lake's owner values her dancers. Unfortunately, the values of Wal-Mart, co-founded by Walton Laurie's father (she and her sister inherited his stock), are not always so laudable, at least according to the United Food and Commercial Workers. Here's some of what union president Joe Hanson has to say about Wal-Mart values, in an April 2005 commentary for USA Today also posted on the union's website:

"As America's largest company, with more than $285 billion in sales and more than $10 billion in profits, Wal-Mart has a responsibility to set the standard for customers, workers, families and communities. America's largest employer -- with nearly 1.3 million workers -- must reflect America's values.

"A company that reflects America's values doesn't pay below poverty-level wages to its workers. At 34 hours per week (full-time at Wal-Mart), the average Wal-Mart associate makes $17,114 per year, well below the poverty level for a family of four." (In 2005, $19,350 for a family of four, according to the Federal government.)

"A company that reflects America's values doesn't have 660,000 of its employees without company-provided health insurance, forcing workers to seek taxpayer-funded public assistance. In fact, in 11 of the 12 states that have disclosed employers who have employees on Medicaid, Wal-Mart tops the list." (This may be changing: As the Times's Michael Barbaro reports today*, this morning Wal-Mart chief H. Lee Scott will talk to employees about the company's new "Value Plan," which drops monthly premiums to as low as $11. However, as healthcare experts and Wal-Mart monitors point out to the Times, the plan's $1,000 deductable could represent a major hurdle for Wal-Mart workers, who skew older and thus are more likely to face health crises -- and remember that salary level. At present, according to the union, less than half of Wal-Mart employees are covered by the company's healthcare plan, 20 percent below the national average.)

"A company that reflects America's values doesn't ask taxpayers to subsidize its $10 billion in profits. A U.S. congressional study found that Wal-Mart costs you, the American taxpayer, up to $2.5 billion in public assistance. One newspaper editorial titled it, 'Wal-Mart Welfare.'

".... Wal-Mart is not creating jobs in our communities. Wal-Mart's business practices simply exchange decent jobs with health benefits for lower-paying jobs and taxpayer-subsidized health care. The truth is Wal-Mart is forcing good-paying American jobs overseas. Wal-Mart is creating an America of lower wages, no health care and lack of retirement security."

Walton Laurie prides herself on her support of dancers, whose ranks, we know, are dominated by women. Unfortunately, the company from which she has derived much of her income does not do so well by females, according to the union. For the same jobs, it alleges, they earn 5 - 15% or 40 cents less per hour than their male counterparts, "even though women have, on average, longer seniority and higher merit ratings than their male counterparts." The disparity does not stop when they scale the hierarchy; "the average mail senior vice president... makes $419,435 a year, while the four women senior vice presidents earn an average of $279,772" says the union. And the company, it says, "still faces the largest gender discrimination lawsuit, 1.6 million women, in U.S. history for unfair pay and unequal promotion."

To find out more about Wal-Mart and its workers -- from the union perspective, anyway -- please click here.

What does Wal-Mart think about unions, by the way? From its corporate website: "At Wal-Mart, we respect the individual rights of our associates and encourage them to express their ideas, comments and concerns. Because we believe in maintaining an environment of open communications, we do not believe there is a need for third-party representation." Uh, excuse me, but a union is not a 'third-party''; rather, it levels the playing field by giving workers negotiating skills and representation commensurate with those of management. (To read more about what the union characterizes as Wal-Mart's Anti-Union Campaign, click here.)

So, besides concern that the anti-union stance of her uncle Sam Walton's company might migrate to her dance company, what's my point? Do I say that because Nancy Walton Laurie (likely) acquired the means to enable her to found a dance company through profits gleaned partly from Wal-Mart's paying retail workers relatively low wages, dancers should refuse to work for her, dance audiences refuse to see her company, or, for that matter, dance publications refuse to review the company or accept its advertising dollars? No, I don't say this; the reality is that in our financially piss-poor community, with relatively little public funds available to it, at least in the U.S., we seem to be in large part dependent on money gleaned from cancer agents ("Altria" a.k.a. Philip Morris) or labor exploiters (oil/Harkness, automobiles/Ford, and Wal-Mart). What I do say is a) when you sit in that spanking new theater tonight watching those glorious dancers -- or as you dance across that new stage -- be aware of whose inadequately-compensated labors are paying for all this and b) urge Ms. Walton Laurie to use her clout as a major stock-holder to urge her family's company to take as good care of its workers as she apparently does -- notwithstanding the previous alleged problems assiduously reported by Kinetz -- of her company's dancers.

(On Friday, the Dance Insider sent a form of this article to General Strategic Marketing, Cedar Lake's publicist, with an invitation for Walton Laurie to respond. As of presstime, no response from Cedar Lake's owner had been received.)


*If you're reading this column more than seven days after the Times article was published, you may not be able to access it without paying; unlike the Dance Insider, the New York Times charges its readers to view its archives, except for reviews.

 

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