Monday, November 26, 2012

Walmart and Unions

Matt Yglesias points out that Megan McArdle is actually making a pretty solid pro-Union arguement for Walmart (while trying to argue the opposite).  Consider:

This is a great case study in rhetorical strategies. But the analysis is admirably clear. Wal-Mart's profit margins, though by no means enormous, are larger than those of its main competitors. Given the weak national labor market, Wal-Mart has no reason to cough up extra money to its workforce. But a strong labor union could coerce them into coughing up higher pay and bringing their margins in line with Costco and Macy's. As a result, each Wal-Mart employee might get a bit less than $3,000 more a year. Whether that's "life-changing" or not is an interesting question, but since we're talking about low-wage workers here, I think the intuitions of highly paid professionals may be a bit off. It seems very plausible that the marginal hedonic value of a thousand bucks or three to Wal-Mart's workforce would be very large.

How large?  The average wage for a Walmart employee is tricky as many are not full time and the mean hourly wage is a subject of debate.  However, this is a high end estimate (both in hourly wages and in the assumption of full time employment):
The average Walmart "associate," Wake Up Walmart reports, makes $11.75 an hour. That's $20,744 per year. Those wages are slightly below the national average for retail employees, which is $12.04 an hour. They also produce annual earnings that, in a one-earner household, are below the $22,000 poverty line.
So a $3,000/year hike in wages would, conservatively, be a 15% increase in pay.  That would leave prices unchanged and reset the margins at Walmart to that of Macy's (hardly a disaster in the making to have margins at this level).  If the average employee makes more like $14,000 (another plausible estimate) then the pay rise is even steeper.  At these pay levels, a few thousand a year can be a life changing event, given the number of fixed expenses in life.   

The other argument Megan advances, that Amazon is coming, is admittedly more subtle.  But here is the thing, Matt is absolutely correct that Amazon is unstoppable so long as its current business model is permitted to exist.  It has no margin . . . at all, and is thus a bet on the future of e-commerce.  Now the United States has been aggressively subsidizing e-commerce in a number of ways, ranging from failing to collect sales taxes for online items, providing a reliable postal service everywhere to make the shipping model work, and Wall Street being willing to pour cash into the company despite no profits. 

But that issue doesn't affect Walmart more than any other retailer.  Nobody is immune to this problem and it remains to be seen how this will all shake out. 

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