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Jason Kuznicki puts real numbers into the big-box discussion at Positive Liberty:
"Wal-Mart is a corporation, not a fountain of limitless cash that we can approach with a pail and a shovel. We can shame Wal-Mart all we like, but it will not enrich the chain’s employees. . . .
"Let’s imagine, though, a perfectly altruistic Wal-Mart, a Wal-Mart that took every bit of its net income and returned it directly to the employees. We shall forget, for the moment, that this would also drop Wal-Mart’s stock price to zero (no dividend and no possibility of growth means no reason to invest). We shall also forget that our new firm—call it Charity-Mart—will entirely lack the ability to meet unforseen contingencies. We shall even put out of our minds the imminent dissolution of the firm, which would surely be the result of this disastrous policy. Hey, whatever. Imagine no possessions and all that. . . . So here are the numbers, if we returned absolutely everything Wal-Mart made to the employees:
"10.267 billion net income / 1.6 million employees = A one-time cash payoff of . . . $6,626.25. Which they will have to spend wisely, since they will momentarily be out of a job." (Read the whole thing; the comments are intelligent and civil as well.)
Kuznicki has hold of an important part of the truth, but not the whole thing. He leans heavily on the fact that lots and lots of people apply for jobs at Wal-Mart--so by definition, no matter how menial or ill-paid they are, they've decided that they're better off with those jobs than with the alternatives.
Does the voluntary presence of employees prove Wal-Mart's critics wrong? No. That argument proves too much. It would also justify the repugnant situation in which people were applying for jobs that paid one cent an hour because the alternative was chattel slavery.
The market system that enables Wal-Mart to find ways to sell cheaply is legally bound by our collective decision that some forms of employment are not tolerable. Minimum-wage laws, laws against slavery, occupational health and safety laws, environmental laws, all define the market playing field. Within that field wealth is created. If the play gets too rough, we pass laws to change the shape of the field. That's what the City Council tried to do--and eventually that fiasco may force people like Mayor Daley to actually lobby at the state or federal level for a more effective minimum-wage law than any single city can pass.