In Big Labor's war against Wal-Mart, "collateral damage"--in the form of lost jobs and income for the poor--is starting to add up. Of course, since the unions and their legislative allies claim that their motive is to liberate people from exploitation by Wal-Mart, these unintended effects are often ignored.
Here in Maryland, however, that's getting hard to do. The consequences of our Legislature's override of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto of their "Fair Share Health Care Act" on Jan. 12 will be tragic for some of the state's neediest residents. The law will force companies that employ over 10,000 to spend at least 8% of their payroll on health care or kick any shortfall into a special state fund. Wal-Mart would be the only employer in the state to be affected.
Almost surely, therefore, the company will pull the plug on plans to build a distribution center that would have employed 800 in Somerset County, on Maryland's picturesque Eastern Shore. As a Wal-Mart spokesman has put it, "you have to take a step back and call into question how business-friendly is a state like Maryland when they pass a bill that . . . takes a swipe at one company that provides 15,000 jobs."
Unfortunately, in Somerset, the new law looks more like a body blow than a "swipe." The rural county is Maryland's poorest, with per capita personal income 46% below the state average and a poverty rate 130% above it. Somerset's enduring problem is weak labor demand that greatly limits its 25,250 residents' economic opportunities.
There are just 0.8 jobs per household in Somerset, barely half the 1.5 figure that applies to the rest of the state. Somerset's top 10 list of employers features sectors like food services (average annual compensation per employee: $9,637), poultry and egg production ($14,320) and seafood preparation and packaging ($19,190).
It is hard to exaggerate how much the planned distribution center might have meant to Somerset's economy. Using an input-output model, we forecast the "ripple effects" of the new income and spending that could have emanated from Wal-Mart's facility as follows:
- The center's 800 employees would have created an additional 282 jobs among "upstream" suppliers and "downstream" retailers and service establishments; all told, the center would have boosted county employment by 14% and private-sector employment by 20%.
- Total annual employee compensation in Somerset would have risen by $46.5 million, or 19%.
- Annual output (or "gross county product") would have risen by $128.3 million, or 19%.
- State and local tax receipts would have increased by $19.2 million annually; this would include $8.5 million in property taxes, $5.6 million in sales taxes, and $1.4 million in personal income taxes.
Those losses, though dramatic, probably understate the full extent of the damage in this case. They do not include forgone employment and income from construction of the facility and related infrastructure improvements. What is more, Wal-Mart's tentative plans for a second distribution center in Garrett County, in mountainous western Maryland, also appear dead. Garrett, with a poverty rate that is 70% above the state's, is only slightly better off than Somerset.
How could our legislators turn a blind eye to such areas? Partly, of course, they are simply eager for Big Labor's votes and money and therefore subservient to its interests. The Service Employees International Union actually helped draft what became known as the "Wal-Mart bill." Unable--so far--to organize workers at the company, the union's immediate national strategy is to limit Wal-Mart's competitive reach by raising its costs. Maryland was a shrewdly chosen place to kick off this campaign.
Some estimate that as much as a third of the state's economic activity stems from federal employment and purchases. Over 150,000 Marylanders--six times the population of tiny Somerset--are on the federal (nonmilitary) payroll; they are concentrated in central Maryland, near the nation's capital. Nearly 268,000 more Marylanders draw checks from state and local government.
With so many workers in a sector where revenues appear to arrive automatically and inefficiency never leads to bankruptcy, our state's resulting political culture is quite predictable. Many Marylanders are simply unmindful of the necessities of survival in the private sector: pleasing customers, controlling costs and satisfying shareholders. Thanks to the federal tax dollars collected from the rest of the country and spent in Maryland, the prevailing view of economic reality is inverted: The public sector is seen as the engine of prosperity, with the private one along for the ride.
Reflecting this culture, our legislators often behave as if business is a problem to be solved. On Jan. 17, they also overrode a gubernatorial veto of a $1-an-hour increase in the state's minimum wage. Like the health-care mandate, the hike is a job killer--though not in affluent areas of the state, where strong labor demand long ago pushed the going wage above the minimum. In those areas, the law is largely symbolic and enables well-meaning voters and legislators to conclude that they are "doing something for working families." Safely out of their view, however, at Maryland's impoverished margins, already weak labor demand will be further diminished.
What remains to be seen is whether Maryland will be a leading political indicator or an anomaly, for Wal-Mart bills have been drafted in 33 other states. Emboldened by success here, lawmakers in some states have set the threshold for companies to be hit with mandated health benefits as low as 1,000 workers.
In these upcoming battles, legislators should be mindful that companies like Wal-Mart are not the enemy but rather frontline soldiers in a real war on poverty. The profit motive leads them to seek out areas where there is much idle labor and put it to work. Where they are prevented or discouraged from doing so, the alternative job prospect is rarely a cushy spot in the bureaucracy. Rather, it is continued idleness and hardship.