2 Million?

How do you do that?

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s biggest retailer, agreed to pay $54.3 million to settle a Minnesota lawsuit over wages after a judge ruled the company broke state laws by requiring employees to work off-the-clock.

The settlement covers workers employed between Sept. 11, 1998, and Nov. 14, 2008, at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club locations, the retailer said today in a statement. The agreement prevents the case from being presented to a jury, which would have been asked to order Wal-Mart to pay as much as $2 billion.

The company required hourly employees to work off-the-clock during training and denied full rest or meal breaks in violation of state wage-and-hour laws, Hastings, Minnesota, District Judge Robert King Jr. ruled July 1, following a non-jury trial. King said Wal-Mart broke labor laws more than 2 million times and ordered the retailer to give employees $6.5 million in back pay.

Of course, we all know that Wal-Mart is the scum of the Earth, but this really ought to be rallying cry of the pro-EFCA movement. The right has gotten some traction in framing this as a move to “take away the secret ballot,” in no small part because the corporate media are, well, corporate owned, and quite a bit willing to do a little union busting of their own. Progressives have been pretty bad at battling that back, but really, this should change all of that.

At the heart of the matter, nothing really changes about balloting except who has governing authority. At present, unions can already be organized by card check, but the employer has the right to demand an NLRB election. Of course that’s in their favor, because they get to draw the process out, force workers into anti-union meetings, and yes, flagrantly break the law. That ought to be obvious on the face of things. And even under EFCA, it only takes 30% of workers requesting a secret-ballot election to force one. But what progressives really ought to focus on, I think, is how shameful the NLRB and the election process is.

Imagine for a second that the penalty for stealing $1 million was a $100,000 fine. And you got to keep the rest of the money. And there was no prison time. Think we’d see a lot more people robbing banks? That’s basically what you have under our current labor laws; penalties for violations are so laughably light that it’s actually more cost effective for corporations like Wal-Mart to flagrantly violate it and pay the fine than it is to follow the letter of the law. Running through the math here, $54 million for 2 million violations comes out to $27 per violation. If you’re paying your workers $7 an hour, that’s just under 4 hours worth of work, for one employee. With those kinds of margins, why the hell wouldn’t Wal-Mart, or anyone else, break the law?

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