Today's All-American WalMart Strike
Early this morning Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that "WalMart has established over 4,400 factories in China where workers have been paid as little as 16 cents per hour." If you're ready to shrug your shoulders and say that that isn't your problem, stop and think for a moment. You've heard of outsourcing and off-shoring, right? This is what it is and this why the American plutocrats who control 100% of the Republican Party and perhaps half the Democratic Party say American workers have it too good and need to compete. They'd like to see U.S. unions destroyed and U.S. workers compete with workers making 16 cents an hour. Think of the profits!
Sanders also mentioned, again, that the 6 WalMart heirs, the Waltons, own more of the country's wealth (around $100 billion worth) than that of 40% of Americans combined. That's a big deal too-- for democracy itself. Democracy itself can't thrive in an environment of that kind of extreme income disparity. Today WalMart workers-- who have no union-- went on strike across the country, even though WalMart is expected to retaliate against striking workers. (Here's the memo they sent to their management team.)
Workers at Walmart stores across the country are walking off their jobs to protest the national retailer’s low wages and poor working conditions in an effort to raise public awareness about how the company treats its employees on the busiest shopping day of the year. The strikes, which began earlier this month, are the first in the 50 year history of the company and come just as Walmart reported a 9 percent increase in third-quarter net income, earning $3.63 billion.Here's where I would say, I'm boycotting WalMart and you should too. But I never shop in a WalMart and the only one I've ever been to was in Mérida, the capital of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula which was the only grocery carrying organic produce I could find. Friday, though, Robert Reich explained why it's so very important for progressives to not shop in WalMart, not now and not ever.
Workers are also opposing Walmart’s poor benefits, alleged systematic discrimination against women, and its decision this year to kick off Black Friday on Thursday night.
A half-century ago, America's largest private-sector employer was General Motors, whose full-time workers earned an average hourly wage of around $50, in today's dollars, including health and pension benefits. Today, America's largest employer is Walmart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart's employees work fewer than 28 hours per week and do not qualify for benefits.So far today there have been fullblown strikes in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Orlando and Washington, D.C., as well as walkouts in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Minnesota, and other states, as many as a thousand stores. Please keep in mind that in 2012 alone, WalMart spent $4,650,000 in lobbying and $2,723,330 bribing federal legislators with "contributions." I spoke with one Florida congressman-elect WalMart doesn't even try bribing. Alan Grayson told me a few minutes ago, just after he'd gotten back from supporting the protesters at the local WalMart that "It's a shame that people who work so hard have to fight to be paid the money that they need just to stay alive."
There are many reasons for the difference-- including globalization and technological changes that have shrunk employment in American manufacturing, while enlarging it in sectors involving personal services, such as retail. But one reason, closely related to this seismic shift, is the decline of labor unions in the United States.
In the 1950s, over a third of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today, fewer than 7% do. As a result, the typical American worker no longer has the bargaining clout to get a sizeable share of corporate profits.
At the peak of its power and influence in the 1950s, the United Auto Workers could claim a significant portion of GM's earnings for its members. Walmart's employees, by contrast, have no union to represent them. So, they've had no means of getting much of the corporation's earnings.
Walmart earned $16bn last year (it just reported a 9% increase in earnings in the third quarter of 2012, to $3.6bn), much of which went to Walmart's shareholders-- including the family of its founder, Sam Walton. The wealth of the Walton family now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40% of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
Is this about to change? Despite decades of failed unionization attempts, Walmart workers are planning to strike or conduct some other form of protest outside at least 1,000 locations across the United States this Friday-- so-called "Black Friday," the biggest shopping day in America when the Christmas holiday buying season begins.
The labor action is unlikely to dim the enthusiasm of buyers looking for Walmart bargains, but it's at least garnering media attention. Walmart employees have a chance to air their grievances in public-- not only lousy wages (as low at $8 an hour), but also unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, excessive hours and sexual harassment-- generating bad publicity for the company exactly when it wants the public to think of it as Santa Claus. And the threatened strike, the first in 50 years, is gaining steam.
The company is fighting back. It has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to preemptively ban the Black Friday strikes. The complaint alleges that the pickets are illegal "representational" picketing designed to win recognition for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
Walmart's workers say they're protesting unfair labor practices, rather than acting on behalf of the UFCW. If a court sides with Walmart, it could possibly issue an injunction blocking Black Friday's pickets.
What happens at Walmart will have consequences extending far beyond the company. Other big-box retailers are watching carefully. Walmart is their major competitor. Its pay scale and working conditions set the standard.
More broadly, the widening inequality reflected in the gap between the pay of Walmart workers and the returns to Walmart investors, including the Walton family, haunts the American economy. Consumer spending is 70% of economic activity, but consumers are also workers. And as income and wealth continue to concentrate at the top, and the median wage continues to drop-- it's now 8% lower than it was in 2000-- a growing portion of the American workforce lacks the purchasing power to get the economy back to speed. Without a vibrant and growing middle class, Walmart itself won't have the customers it needs.
Most new jobs in America are in personal services like retail, with low pay and bad hours. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average full-time retail worker earns between $18,000 and $21,000 per year. But if retail workers got a raise, would consumers have to pay higher prices to make up for it? A new study by the thinktank Demos reports that raising the salary of all full-time workers at large retailers to $25,000 per year would lift more than 700,000 people out of poverty, at a cost of only a 1% price increase for customers.
And, in the end, retailers would benefit. According to the study, the cost of the wage increases to major retailers would be $20.8bn-- about 1% of the sector's $2.17tn in total annual sales. But the study also estimates the increased purchasing power of lower-wage workers, as a result of the pay raises, would generate $4-5bn in additional retail sales.
That seems like a good deal.