Monday, August 29, 2005

Competing claims of teacher loyalty 

I thank Kathy Kersten for stopping by our booth at the Patriot Saturday -- she's been a good friend of the show since our inception. She mentioned on air that her column today would look at teachers and Wal-Mart, a topic we've visited quite a bit here. But she's gotten out more and found some good stories to tell. And it isn't just low prices for all the Melissas of the world to get their pens for school.

A woman loading packs of ballpoint pens into her cart caught my eye. No, she didn't have 120 children. She was Karla Keller Torp, executive director of the Caring Tree in Bloomington, a nonprofit organization that partners with social service agencies such as the Boys and Girls Clubs to get school supplies to low-income kids across Minnesota.

Torp told me that 121,000 Minnesota kids live at or below the poverty level. Last year, Caring Tree outfitted 17,000 of them for school. Yes, she knew about the teachers' union boycott, but wasn't deterred.

"At the Caring Tree, we're trying to squeeze every dollar we have for the sake of the kids. Wal-Mart helps us leverage and maximize our dollars."

Torp pointed to the pile of blue backpacks stuffed into her cart. "We've determined that the starting price point for backpacks is around $9.98. At Wal-Mart, we've found great quality at a great price -- these are only $4.47."

Torp added that Wal-Mart supports the Caring Tree with discounts that reduce prices even more. "Wal-Mart's been a good partner for us for years," she concluded.

And for their employees?
I asked Abdikafi Ahmed, 22, a Wal-Mart employee stacking goods, what it's like to work at Wal-Mart. A native of Somalia, he's worked part time for four years while attending the University of Minnesota. "Wal-Mart is flexible and convenient," he said. "It's the perfect job for me." Ahmed pointed out that Wal-Mart has a policy of promoting from within. (According to a Wal-Mart spokesman, the CEO of the company's Sam's Club division, Doug McMillon, started out unloading trucks at Wal-Mart.)

Down the aisle, I met a full-time employee, Tom Walch, 55, who's worked at Wal-Mart only two weeks. He's satisfied with the pay, and joined partly for the benefits. Walch comes from a union family. "I figure it's your choice whether you want to work for a unionized company or not," he says. He prefers Wal-Mart's Open Door policy, which encourages him to call managers up the chain if he has a problem.
Your choice whether to work, and your choice where to shop. We have many claims on our time and talent and resources to fulfill what we want. Do we really want to take some of that to remove the choices these people are making? Do we really want to use them to help the teachers' unions squelch another supporter of school choice? Sometimes, apparently, not even teachers can justify that choice.