Tom picks the employee-friendly Costco over the poverty-pushing Wal-Mart--except when it comes to socks and shorts

At a recent fund-raiser, comedian Billy Crystal told John Kerry, "Next time you're happy, remember to tell your face." I think about that all the time. The guy's got a spitfire of a wife, two great kids, all the money in the world, all of his own hair and a good chance to save America from George W. Bush, yet he walks around looking sadder than a Wal-Mart employee.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, I almost never shop there. I got mad at them a few years ago when they started censoring music. Hey, this is America. I want the dirty music that my kids want to hear to have "Parental Advisory" stickers on it, because I'm a parent, and I want to do some advising. I don't want my choices limited by some quasi-Christian corporate creep.

Plus, I don't like their rabid anti-union stance. My dad was a union man, as was his dad. In fact, my grandfather, whom I never met, pissed the government off so much with his union activities on the railroad that he got sent back to Ireland for a time. He had to sign a paper swearing off union stuff before they would let him back in the United States, but as soon as he got here, he went right back to the union. Fortunately, none of that stubbornness and anti-social behavior was passed down to me.

I really don't see what Wal-Mart's problem with a union is. Do the owners of the company think it's OK to pay people piss wages as long as they let them wear those spiffy blue vests? I, for one, wouldn't mind paying a little bit more for each item if I knew that it was helping somebody actually earn a decent living. What, are Sam Walton's heirs afraid that they'll become the fifth-through-ninth richest people in America, instead of the fourth-through-eighth?

Granted, the pay doesn't have to skyrocket; there aren't a whole lot of college graduates working at Wal-Mart. Heck, for all I know, Wal-Mart may be the biggest college-recruiting tool in America.

COUNSELOR: So, Melissa, what made you decide to go to college?

MELISSA: Well, my mom worked at Wal-Mart, and she always walked around looking sadder than John Kerry.

There are two Wal-Marts near my home. One of them is all ghetto, and I never go into it, not even to smell the popcorn. The other one is all spacious and well-lit; I can stand that one in short bursts.

I probably wouldn't shop there at all were it not for the fact that the shorts and T-shirts I wear are only sold at The Devil's Mega-Store. It's weird; they cost about five bucks each, and they last for freakin' ever, but nobody else in town wants to sell them. I've never been one of those brand-name sissies. If something works, it works, and I'll stick with it. However, I have a strict clothing allowance of $100 a year--including socks--so the Waltons ain't gettin' rich offa' me.

There is one other item I buy at Wal-Mart: When I get on one of those dreadful weight-loss tears, I get these particular cans of fruit, put them in the freezer until they get all slushy, and then eat them so I can pretend that I'm actually enjoying myself. (It comes this close to being a frozen treat; it's a bit further from being an actual treat.) And what's the only store in town that sells this particular canned-fruit product? You guessed it--the Store That Ate America.

I prefer to shop at Costco, partly because I read in Jim Hightower's book, Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush, that Costco's CEO, Jim Sinegal, insists on paying his workers good wages, with unions and great health benefits for all. Says Sinegal, "We pay much better than Wal-Mart. That's not altruism; that's good business. If you hire good people, give them good jobs and pay them good wages, generally something good is going to happen."

According to the book, a full-time Costco clerk can make more than $40K a year with benefits. Their pay is three times that of a Wal-Mart clerk, yet Costco's labor costs are about half that of Wal-Mart because Costco doesn't have a huge turnover of the labor force. Wal-Mart has a turnover of 50 percent per year! That's an enormous built-in cost of constantly having to recruit, train and then lose workers. It's said that even a 10 percent drop in employee turnover can produce a 20 percent savings in labor costs.

There is the slight downside that Costco doesn't have a lot of stuff there that I want to buy--I hardly ever have a need for 10 pounds of olives. But I do like those big green cans of Parmesan cheese. What really concerns me is that Kirkland brand name. Do you know that you can buy automobile tires, socks, batteries and chicken wings, all with the same brand name? I'm kind of afraid that they're all made with the same stuff.

Anyway, I told you that story so I could tell you this other thing, but I'm out of space, so, to be continued...

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