Thousands of signatures, one goal (from The Ithacan, Ithaca College)

The Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition will present Ithaca’s Wal-Mart with a petition today at 4 p.m. requesting that its employees’ wages be raised to the county living standards.

A living wage is the minimum income required to be self-sufficient and meet a household’s basic needs, said Pete Meyers, organizer of the coalition.

The group began working on the petition in February to raise awareness, begin a national movement and let Wal-Mart know how many people care, he said. Currently, there are more than 5,200 signatures on the petition, about 520, or 10 percent, of which are from students at the college, he said.

According to 2001 wage data presented in Dukes v. Wal-Mart and reported in “Business Week,” Wal-Mart paid its employees an average salary of $13,861, or $8.23 an hour for a 32-hour- workweek. In Tompkins County, the living wage is $19,902 per year, Meyers said. This equals $9.18 per hour with health benefits, or $10.46 without.

The college’s Students for Just Peace worked with the coalition to show a new documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices,” on campus Monday night. The film’s director, Robert Greenwald, focuses on the negative aspects of the corporation, including the treatment of employees, the effect on local businesses and communities and environmental issues.

Around 300 students, faculty and community members attended the event, said senior Daniel McCarey, president of SJP. The petition was also available to sign after the showing.
“There are a number of students here on campus that are involved with the Living Wage Coalition downtown,” said McCarey. “There will be a good amount of IC students joining the group [to present the petition to Wal-Mart].”

Dave Jacobson, manager of the Ithaca Wal-Mart, said it is unclear whether the petition will influence any real change. The corporation has general wage guidelines, though starting wages vary depending on the employee’s experience and the location of the store. However, there are chances for employees to improve their wages, he said.

“As a former hourly-wage earner myself, I can say that the opportunities are there to better yourself,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said since its opening, Wal-Mart has been involved with the local charities and organizations.

“We offer a [lot] to this community,” he said. “How many people were provided with a new job that did not have one prior to the store’s opening?”

Meyers said past efforts of the coalition include working to raise the state’s minimum wage and adjusting starting salaries of paraprofessionals, such as teachers’ aides.

Right now, the group’s focus is mainly on the Wal-Mart living wage campaign, he said.
Meyers said the focus of the campaign is not to encourage people to boycott Wal-Mart, but to reach out to people who support the retailer.

“We’re trying to raise people’s expectations of what a person working at a retail store should get paid,” he said. “Why should Wal-Mart have a $10 billion per year profit when many of its employees are struggling to get by?”
Chuck Zelinski, a Wal-Mart associate of five years who recently transferred to the Ithaca store, said employees should at least make enough money to afford to survive in the area.

“I don’t know how people survive on the kind of money [they do],” he said. “I love the company, and I hope they are responsive to [the petition] … It’s an important thing, to take care of the associates.”

However, Andrea Neal, who has worked at Wal-Mart for about seven years, said she does not agree with the petition. Neal, who used to work in the Cortland store, said she now makes the half- hour commute to Ithaca because of higher pay and a promotion. “I make really good money here, compared to [Cortland],” she said. “I was making nothing.”

As the world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart made nearly $288 billion in revenue and a $10 billion net profit in 2004, according to Fortune magazine. This profit is equal to the Wal-Mart competitors’ profits combined and doubled, according to Wal-Mart Watch, a non-profit research group.
Sophomore Daisy Tomaselli, a volunteer with the coalition, said Wal-Mart is not the only store that should adjust low wages.

“We don’t defend any store that doesn’t pay their workers a living wage, especially when they can afford to,” she said. “This includes K-Mart, Sears, Target and all big-box stores.”

Tomaselli said she thinks the proposed wage increases are not impossible. Costco, a large wholesaler, pays workers up to $17 per hour by keeping the salaries of higher-ups relatively low, she said.

According to a Nov. 9 article in the Ithaca Times, Wal-Mart officials often list the average salary at $9.64 per hour, but that is more likely a figure of the corporation’s middle pay, rather than its average pay. Meyers said at a meeting before the store’s opening, coalition members and city officials were promised exact wage information by Wal-Mart representatives. They still have not received it, he said.

Tim Joseph, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said the low wages paid by Wal-Mart affect everyone in the community.

“A big part of the county budget goes to providing basic services to people working in low-wage jobs,” he said. “Since [these workers] are not paid enough, we are paying them. You are paying them.”

Sophomore Jaime Waznis, who attended the documentary screening Monday night, said the film was powerful and she will likely cut back on her Wal-Mart shopping. Waznis signed the coalition’s petition last spring.

“I liked that the idea of the petition was not to end corporate America, but to end its bad practices, like low wages,” she said.

“This is the first step, and it’s a really important one.” At the petition presentation, members of the coalition, local community members and local politicians will join Meyers. Mayor Carolyn Peterson and New York state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton will be present, Meyers said.

Meyers said the group does not know what to expect, but believes it is a public step. Though living wage movements are rare, they are significant because the issues apply to communities everywhere, he said. The local focus of the movement is crucial to success, he said.

“This way, people are more aware because it is happening right in front of them,” he said. “If it is solely a national campaign, I don’t think people will know about it.”
Joseph said while local campaigns are necessary for raising awareness, a nationwide movement is still required for real change, but the petition will help hopefully.

The presentation of the petition is part of a series of local events for “Higher Expectations Week,” organized by Wal-Mart Watch, to raise awareness of political and social issues related to the super- retailer, Meyers said. “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices” will be playing at Cinemapolis in The Commons through Saturday.