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Sun Dec 1, 2013, 02:16 PM


Walmart And Downton Abbey: Rampant Inequality And Detachment From Reality

By Sadhbh Walshe, The Guardian
Friday, November 29, 2013 12:58 EST

Iím not exactly sure what it is about the hit British TV series, Downton Abbey, that has enthralled so many of us. The scenery is great, Lady Maryís wardrobe is just fabulous, but there are plot holes so huge one could drive Lady Edithís car through them. I suspect the fascination it provokes has something to do with nostalgia Ė a hankering for a simpler time, when everyone knew their place and where the classes, though separate and unequal, were at least able to be polite to one other. Whatever it is that we find so charming about the series, however, we should try to keep in mind that the rampant inequality it celebrates is not something we should be hankering after.

America has its own real-life upstairs/downstairs thing going on at the moment, best embodied by the Walton clan, who own the lionís share of Walmart Stores, Inc. Walmart is the single largest private employer in America with a work force of some 1.3 million. Each of the four Waltonís who have an interest in the stores increased their net worth by $7bn last year alone. Meanwhile, the companyís sales associates, who make up the bulk of the work-force, earn an average of $8.81 per hour Ė less than the federal poverty level for a family of four.

So itís a bit like Downton Abbey on a bigger budget, most of which is allocated to the above the line players. While the Waltonís, with their occasional charitable doings and their apparent detachment from reality, seem to feel very comfortable in their role as modern day Lord and Lady Granthams, their poverty-wage workers seem less inclined to imitate the subservient behavior of their below-stairs counterparts. And thatís a good thing.

Today, Black Friday as itís known among shopaholics, a slew of protests are being planned outside some 1500 Walmart stores across the country to demand better pay and work conditions. I can only imagine what Downtonís dowager countess (she, of ďWhat is a weekend?Ē fame) would have to say if the workers at Downton Abbey dropped their pitchforks (or raised them perhaps) on one of the estateís busiest days of the year. Iím sure she would be shocked at the ingratitude of the Walmart employees, particularly since at least one Walmart store was recently kind enough to organize a food drive for its impoverished workers so they could enjoy a decent Thanksgiving meal. Itís unlikely that the dowager would ever have come around to thinking that it might be better for everyone if the serving classes were given a chance to rise up the social ladder. But the Walmart bosses may someday learn that their disinclination to share the wealth may not be entirely in their best interests.

Although the Walton family made out like bandits last year and the outgoing CEO of Walmart Stores, Inc, Michael T Duke, took home nearly $20m in compensation, the company is not actually doing very well. The US stores have reported shrinking sales for three straight quarters. In a rare moment of clarity, the president and CEO of Walmart US, William Simon, attributed the drop in sales to the over stretched incomes of the low wage consumer the store typically attracts. He explained:



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