Hey, Wal-Mart: These Are American Workers' Songs

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Well, Wal-Mart  (WMT), it's not my fault that you used a Canadian band to boast about your plan to create "American" jobs, but you've made this my problem. Now it's yours.

A couple of days ago, I made the grave error of calling attention to my colleague Rocco Pendola's excellent piece Dear Wal-Mart: Rush Is Canadian. He pointed out the folly of the mega-retailer using Rush's song Working Man as a "warm and fuzzy Winter Olympics television advertisement" to "promote the merits of American workers."

Despite the fact that I didn't type so much as a comma in the article or make any argument about Wal-Mart's cross-border music outsourcing program myself, I received a little tap on the shoulder in the form of a tweet from Wal-Mart corporate itself. You know it's a big deal when the voice of the retail gods talks to you from the flagship Twitter handle and not through some sternly worded e-mail sent from a randomly selected member of its public relations or marketing staff.

This unsolicited critique naturally led me to a few questions:

That last one seemed particularly pertinent, given Wal-Mart's recent disagreements with employees. The discount chain has endured strikes on Black Friday, the National Labor Relations Board's decision that it illegally fired and reprimanded 70 workers who went on strike last summer, a federal court decision in Los Angeles demanding that Wal-Mart face trial for alleged rights violations at a California warehouse and, most recently, Wolfe Research's recent downgrade of Wal-Mart to underperform because of understaffing, erosion of its price advantage and increasing pressure from labor groups.

Pendola noted that Family Dollar  (FDO), Dollar General  (DG) and other lower-priced chains were chipping away at its value to the consumer, but its recent labor woes would explain the tone-deaf choice of soundtrack for the American worker. However, that's not how Wal-Mart's Twitter presence sees it.

Never mind that, despite getting big-time airplay in Cleveland about four decades ago (as Rocco Pendola mentions in his followup, Here's Why Wal-Mart Screwed Up By Using Rush To Promote American Workers), Rush's Working Man has just about zero to do with U.S. manufacturing jobs and would have required a Google search of less than a fraction of a second to determine its Canadian origins. Picking this song isn't even the laziest infraction Wal-Mart has committed.

Wal-Mart has been in existence for roughly 52 years. At some point during that span, it must have occurred to someone in the Walton family that their headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., is located in an industrialized nation with plenty of manufacturing capacity and available labor. This was especially true during the recession, when 36% of American workers older than 25 with a high school education or less started losing jobs in 2007 and haven't stopped. About 767,000 fewer of them reported having a job in 2012 than in 2010, and 2 million workers in that demographic left the job market altogether during that span.

When the U.S. economy recovered 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed during the recession, roughly 65% of those regained jobs have been of the low-wage variety. Unfortunately, the National Employment Law Project says nearly 60% of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages or better.

So where did a whole lot of those workers end up? Wal-Mart, which noticeably didn't push for more manufacturing gigs when all the applications started funneling in. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 4.3 million people hold the most popular job in the U.S., the $25,000-a-year position of retail salesperson. Cashiers come in second with 3.3 million U.S. jobs, but Wal-Mart is just as ready to pay them an average of $20,000 a year to ring up purchases. Wal-Mart now employes 2.2 million people in the U.S. and is the nation's largest private employer.

Wal-Mart could have launched this little initiative at any time, and is still vague about how or when its product sourcing will change, but the absolutely sloppy advertising of this fact through the use of a Canadian band brings Wal-Mart's already questionable commitment into question.

Since Wal-Mart has such little experience with the U.S. manufacturing worker or with music in general -- its Music Content Policy  prohibits its from stocking albums bearing the Parental Advisory label -- we've decided to thank the company for reaching out to us by suggesting a few songs by American artists that are a bit better suited to the U.S. industrial aesthetic than those produced by Canadian labor:

Bruce Springsteen/Factory

Bruce Springsteen tends to sing about the working man a lot. Workin' On The Highway, The River, My Hometown, Youngstown, Ghost Of Tom Joad and other Springsteen songs go into great detail about U.S. manufacturing, but maybe they just didn't make it sound as idyllic as Wal-Mart had hoped.

It's hard to get the Olympic crowd all fired up when they're reminded that not only did companies like Wal-Mart take a whole lot of jobs overseas just to save some cash on wages and health care, but they weren't all exactly treating Americans like gold when they were stateside, either.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain

I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain

Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life

The working, the working, just the working life

There's a reason Springsteen is most popular in East Coast and Great Lakes Rust Belt towns, and it's not because a disproportionate amount of people there were baseball players back in high school.

Dolly Parton/9 To 5

Know what Working Man doesn't address? The 27.1% of the manufacturing workforce that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is made up of women. Who better to represent that more than a quarter of the workforce than one of the hardest working women in the U.S.

A singer, songwriter, actress, comedienne, businesswoman, theme-park owner and all-around U.S. icon, Parton doesn't get nearly enough credit for this song that captures the post-recession working mentality better than a nearly 35-year-old song should. It's a bit fatalist, but it captures the powerlessness of workers who've rarely felt in control of their destiny in recent years.

Workin' 9 to 5

They got you where they want you

There's a better life

And you think about it, don't you

It's a rich man's game

No matter what they call it

And you spend your life

Puttin' money in his wallet

When a company that spent much of the go-go 2000s and the ensuing recession lining its pockets suddenly wants to boost manufacturing out of the kindness of its heart, maybe it takes someone like Dolly to ask what's in it for Wal-Mart -- and not in it for workers.

Merle Haggard/Workin' Man Blues

We just kind of assumed that the folks at Wal-Mart would be familiar with the work of the man who gave the country Okie From Muskogee and gave voice to the Silent Majority during the Vietnam War. He seems like that company's kind of guy. Consider this line from his 1969 hit Workin' Man Blues for a moment:

Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me

I ain't never been on welfare, that's one place I won't be

Cause I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use

That just sounds like the bootstrappin', self-sustaining U.S. manufacturing worker that Wal-Mart is trying to reach, right? Maybe, but it's also the point where Wal-Mart and ol' Merle agree to disagree. As Bloomberg's Barry Ritholtz reported last year, Wal-Mart is not only OK with its U.S. workers qualifying for welfare programs, it actually encourages them to do so. According to Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, in many states, Wal-Mart employees are the largest group of Medicaid recipients and, in all states, are also the single biggest group of food stamp recipients. Wal-Marts "associates," meanwhile, are paid so little, according to Grayson, that they receive $1,000 on average in public assistance.

In Merle Haggard's America, a U.S. worker could survive on his or her own with a good job and hard work. In Wal-Mart's America, a job and hard work don't even pay the bills.

Lee Dorsey/Working In The Coal Mine

Five o'clock in the mornin'

I'm all ready up and gone

Lord I am so tired

How long can this go on?

Allen Toussaint understood how hard Americans worked when he wrote this in the mid-'60s. Enough folks identified with it when New Orleans' own Lee Dorsey released the song in 1966. How did it get overlooked by Wal-Mart?

It didn't. It just liked the lyrics better when it changed them a few years back to advertise its pricing policy. Workin' On The Rollbacks, Prices Goin' Down Down featuring a hard-hat-wearing smiley face knocking down prices on cheap, foreign-made goods played well in the 2000s, but sounded out of tune after the recession. Even bolstered by low employee wages and an overseas supply chain, those rollbacks still lost ground to dollar stores on the low end while being squeezed by fashionable Target and well-paying bulk retailer Costco on the high end.

It's still a good working tune, but may remind Wal-Mart of its continued, painful breakup with U.S. consumers.

Phil Ochs/The Ballad of Joe Hill

Taking out obituaries for U.S. labor unions has been a favorite pastime of this nation's industrialists and free-market capitalists for generations. In Wal-Mart's case, however, Joe Hill is cropping up in more of its locations than it cares to mention.

Workers and union-supported employee group OUR Wal-Mart have been pushing back hard against the chain's low wages, long hours and short-staffing. In-store protests, Black Friday strikes and a slew of bad publicity have Wal-Mart cranking out press releases faster than its vendors produce cheap plastic resin chairs, but the opposition continues to get the message out.

Unfortunately, it all comes at a terrible time for Wal-Mart. The chain just reported its fourth-consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales and watched its market share fall to its lowest level in six years. Phil Ochs has been gone for nearly 38 years, but his interpretation of this organized labor mainstay has more relevance in U.S. retail than ever before -- especially considering that Wal-Mart rival Costco is beating it with help from a workforce of Teamsters.

Under those circumstances, it's little wonder Wal-Mart wants to turn a deaf ear to U.S. worker songs and crank up the Rush.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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