Some Billionaires and Many Workers
by Seth Sandronsky
March 8, 2004

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A Forbes magazine list of global billionaires in 2003 was the longest ever.

Their ranks rose to 587 from 476 the previous year.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, was the wealthiest person on the planet as he has been for the past decade, worth an estimated $46.6 billion in 2003. Second to him was investor Warren Buffet, whose fortune of $12.4 billion more than tripled to $42.9 billion.

For the top billionaires, there was a five-way tie for sixth place between the widow of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart founder, and four of her family members.

They were “each worth an estimated $20 billion -- making for a Walton's mountain of money that's bigger than the holdings of Gates and Buffett combined,” the AP reported.

One thing is clear about the Wal-Mart wealth. It is not flowing down to the companies’ employees in the U.S., nor to the Chinese workers in Guangdong province being paid sub-human wages to make some of the commodities sold at Wal-Mart.

The Walton billionaires profit from many links in the global commodity chain that is falsely called “free” trade by President Bush and Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president. Apparently, both men are unable to see the missing freedom in the U.S. for the work force at Wal-Mart, well-known for paying its “associates” low wages and benefits.

The average hourly pay is $8.23 for a Wal-Mart worker versus $10.35 for a unionized grocery worker. Moreover, the latter are feeling this low-wage pressure.

Just ask grocery employees in the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Southern California. They just ended a bitter strike there that dragged on for nearly five months.

These workers had tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent their corporate employers—Safeway-owned Vons and Kroger-owned Ralphs and Albertsons—from using the threat of Wal-Mart’s plan to add 40 Supercenters (grocery/retail stores) during the next four years as a reason to cut union members’ wages and health-care benefits. The employers won on several counts.

One is a two-tier (lower) wage scale for new union workers. A second is higher health-care costs for them.

Clearly, Wal-Mart, union-free in 11 nations, is now pulling down the wages and benefits of union workers in the U.S. Call it the “Wal-Martization” effect coming home to roost in the world’s last superpower.

On the surface this is an accurate summary of inequality driven by working conditions based on market competition. But the underlying reality is really nothing more than the normal workings of the capitalist system.

Crucially, Wal-Mart personifies the power of capital over labor, the live human beings who create, stock and transport the commodities for sale on the shelves of its stores. The more wealth that a few billionaires accumulate from the energy of many workers, the less wealth there is for them.

That iron fact about the class system is nothing new. Karl Marx did not make this discovery, as he noted for those who have taken the time to read his writing.

Every generation is caught up in the struggle between capital and labor.

All roads lead to that conflict.

It spawns death and destruction from Haiti to Harlem. That trend exists with its opposite—life and cooperation.

Welcome to the class struggle. We are all connected by it.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: ssandron@hotmail.com

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