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November 24, 2012 9:07 AM The Black Friday worker actions at Walmart: why they mattered

By Kathleen Geier

By most accounts, yesterday’s worker actions at Walmart have were a rousing success. Organizers say there were strikes at 1,000 stores in 46 states; hundreds of workers walked off the job, and they were joined by hundreds of other activists and community supporters. Based on reports by The Nation’s Josh Eidelson, the Walmart actions sound like they were a lot of fun: at rallies, there were light shows, mic checks, and subversive Christmas carols (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”, “Deck the aisles with living wages”).

Organizers say that yesterday’s Walmart strikes, combined with earlier, immigrant-led actions against abusive practices at Walmart suppliers, are part of a strategy of gradual escalation that will be the “new permanent reality” for Walmart: keeping the pressure on, and throwing a harsh national spotlight on the retailer’s bottom-feeding, exploitative labor practices.

Why do these actions matter? First of all, there’s the brute fact of Walmart’s enormous size and power. Walmart is the third largest public corporation in the world, and also the world’s largest private employer, and largest retailer. And as historians like Bethany Moreton have pointed out, when it comes to its employees, Walmart, with its roots in the culture of the agrarian South, has always taken an anti-modern, deeply feudalistic and patriarchal approach. Its economic model is based on low-wage labor, and it has been notable as one of the most vehemently anti-union employers in American history. Since Walmart is such a behemoth, and since its ideology is so passionately anti-labor, it has been one of the driving forces in our economy that has been disempowering and immiserating American workers and accelerating economic inequality. Here, for example, are a few shocking stats, from internal Walmart documents that were recently released: low-level workers at Walmart generally start at only $8 per hour, and, even if their evaluations are flawless, are eligible for a yearly raise that is, at maximum, 60 cents per hour. Most workers get only 20 to 40 cents, and the average worker, after working there for six years, would only be making $10.60 an hour.

I like to explain it this way: Walter Reuther’s 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” between automakers and the UAW set a benchmark for post-war employers that ushered in an era of rising prosperity for workers, lower economic inequality, and a growing middle class. By contrast, Walmart, with its ideology of anti-union feudalism and its commitment to low-wage wage labor, has set a benchmark for today’s employers that has encouraged them to underpay their low- and middle-level employees and lavishly overcompensate those at the top, which has led to anemic economic growth, skyrocketing economic inequality, increasing downward mobility, and an increasingly struggling middle class.

Walmart, clearly, is the labor movement’s great white whale, and to the extent labor can make headway and improve working conditions there, it bodes well for its potential to change things for the better for the rest of American workers. I am, therefore, strongly encouraged, that the United Food and Commercial Workers, which helped organize the protests, seems now to finally be taking a bolder approach, where Walmart is concerned. In the past, I’m afraid, the UFCW and other unions have been too timid in their dealings with Walmart; acquaintances of mine in the labor movement feel the same way. One thing that Occupy showed was that old-fashioned protests and street theater can have an impact. Okay, Occupy didn’t usher in a brave new egalitarian utopia, but it gain media attention and put certain ideas about economic inequality into the national conversation, that hadn’t been there before. I think Occupy is one of many reasons why Democrats were so successful on November 6.

That the UFCW is staging these protests, and seems committed to a strategy of escalation, is encouraging. The one thing about these protests that is not so encouraging is that, thus far, they have received barely any support from elected officials at the national level. Apparently, the only members of Congress who showed up to support the protests were Reps. Alan Grayson of Florida and George Miller of California. Recently, my colleague Ed Kilgore wrote an insightful post about “the coming struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.” The main dividing line in that struggle will be about economics, and the role of labor unions, and in particular of the struggles of low-wage workers at places like Walmart, will be one of the biggest fault lines. It’s worth noting that when her husband was governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton, who if she wants it is likely to be the next Democratic standard-bearer, was on the board of directors of Walmart. Of course, that was a very long time ago. Nevertheless, it’s all the more reason why building a powerful movement to challenge to Walmart’s employment practices is so important. The stronger such a movement is, the more likely it is that Democratic leaders will start supporting its objectives. And in the long run, that will lead to more social justice for us all.

(Note: this post has been updated to reflect that Walmart is no longer spelled with a hyphen between the l and the m. D’oh!)

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • leopold von Ranke on November 24, 2012 11:18 AM:

    Haven't bout anything at a "big box" for years. ALways buy locally. If they don't have it you can order it, usually get it within a day or two, and usually get it at the same price offered by the "superstores," if you ask.

  • Abijah L. on November 24, 2012 11:21 AM:

    I would argue that a strong middle class would be better for the 1% and even for the Walton family themselves.

  • c u n d gulag on November 24, 2012 11:56 AM:

    Wnen did John-boy and the rest of the Walton family turn into such @$$holes?

    I think the Democratic Party needs to wake up, smell the coffee, dump that harlot Wall Street, and go back home to the little house on Main Street.

    Romney and the Republicans got the support of much of the Wall Street and the rich people and corporations around the country.
    The Whoreporatist Democrats need to realize that the money they've been getting for the past few decades from Wall Street may be drying up. They can replace the dollars of the Millionaires and Billionaires by dollars from millions of people.

    Grass roots, Baby!

  • Ron Byers on November 24, 2012 12:32 PM:

    If the last election proved anything, people power (a strong ground game) is very, very important in the world of 200 channels and the internet. Ad buys will always be important, but feet on the ground will be more important in future elections.

    The ability to attract campaign workers gives the Democratic party a real advantage over Republicans. The national party leaders can't forget that when they are tempted to dump on the labor movement.

  • Sean Scallon on November 24, 2012 12:35 PM:

    Wal-Mart, with its roots in the culture of the agrarian South, has always taken an anti-modern, deeply feudalistic and patriarchal approach."

    So what approach does Target, whose roots are in the modern, deeply egalitarian and progressive Midwest whose heir is also the DFL governor of Minnesota, take when it pays its workers even less than Wal-Mart? And they're supposed to be the upscale version of discount shopping!

    Context, background and history and nice fillers but they do not explain everything. Sam Walton was many things but at least he never lorded over Bentonville, Arkansas with his money. He was more than content with driving a beat-up Chevy with dog teeth marks in the steering wheel (while the Daytons lived on ritzy Summit Ave. in St. Paul.) All Sam wanted to do was to bring low-cost shopping to little towns across the South and the Plains. Is it his fault factories and businesses there never paid their workers to afford much else in right-to-work states? It's his kids and grandkids and other heirs who act like hedge fund managers.

    Phrases "roots the agrarian South" may well please some inner-Puritan within you but it also means you're becoming the parody of a conservative "movement" writer use the phrases "liberal, elitist, Harvard-yard, ivory tower", BS as often as you use "agrarian South, feudal, patriarchal." Guess what? Walmart is all over the globe and acts like a gloablistic modern company, not a delta cotton plantation. If you approach it in this manner, perhaps your potential solutions will be taken more seriously instead of writing blog posts that act like a continued re-fighting of the War Between the States or the Civil Rights Movement.

    If neo-Confederates need to "get over it" so do neo-abolitionists.

  • Ken D. on November 24, 2012 12:53 PM:

    There are millions of progressives who already don't shop at Walmart, but are not likely to man picket lines. I suggest the following would be method to enlist them in the cause. (If something like this already exists, let' publicize it.) Prepare an "honor roll" of retailers whose labor policies are are substantially better than Walmart's. It would need to include at least some national and regional chains that compete as directly as possible with Walmart; "shop local" and "avoid big-boxes" would not be sufficient. Costco, from what I understand, would be a candidate; it would be extremely helpful if there were enough choices on the list to be clear that it is not just promotion for one or two. Such an "honor roll" would be useful both rhetorically and commercially, by giving supportive people specific option to support the cause with their shopping habits.

  • kabiddle on November 24, 2012 1:53 PM:

    The underpaid and harassed workers at Walmart are important but the tip of the whole Walmart thing is the manufacturers who supply Walmart its items for sale. There are many who have been "induced" to refocus their manufacturing efforts toward lower wage countries in order to display on a Walmart shelf. Labor is the visible fight, suppliers are more scared than they are. Look to John Deere.

    kabiddle

  • shk on November 24, 2012 7:41 PM:

    The 1950 UAW example is entirely off point. The Big 3 faced no meaningful competition and the barriers to entry into the auto business prevented meaningful competition for decades. It was in the best interest the manufacturers; to agree to higher labor costs, so long as the other 2 competitors faced the same increased costs. Once the Big 3 oligopoly crumbled, the union faced a choice -- preserve a bare majority of the current jobs, while sacrificing the jobs of a large minority and the jobs of future generations, or accept lower wages. They chose the former. Rinse and repeat, as successive sacrificing of the jobs of the minority of the already shrunken work force left the UAW a shell. There was noting noble in the choice.

    A manufacturing oligopoly with high and sustained barriers to entry is a prerequisite to successful unionization. That does not and never will exist in retail. Unionization efforts may have a short term impact on WalMart wages and work practices, but it is a chimera. Only direct government intervention raising costs for all retail workers (e.g., mandatory healthcare) can have a long term impact on the compensation of retail workers and most other private sector workers.

  • emjayay on November 25, 2012 2:24 AM:

    shk: Well put. And it's not just Walmart, it's Kmart and Home Depot and who knows who else.

    In the US labor regs are mainly at the state level. This puts states in competition for who has the most lax regs, although in the case of retail, it mostly (except for the growing internet sector) has to be in a particular state anyway.

    But anyway, we need worker protections in national law if unions aren't going to be there for structural reasons. Minimum wage at least equal to whatever the highest it ever was corrected for inflation.

    Clinton broke the ice a little bit with the way weaker than European countries version of family leave. We need more of that kind of law - requiring employers to employ workers full time instead of part-time when there is no need for part-time workers (or taking away whatever incentives there are for keeping workers part-time), forbidding use of contract and temp workers when there is no actual temp situation (or taking away whatever incentives there are for doing this), some kind of job security - firing for cause, not suspicion of being critical of management or thinking about unionization etc.

    If Obama was really a Democrat (and I'm not saying he hasn't been sort of good on some things) he would be bringing this stuff up. I agree that the recent Walmart actions, which have made it into national news level, like Occupy may be a big part of bringing labor issues up to a critical mass level.

  • James M on November 25, 2012 3:46 AM:

    @Sean Scallon on November 24, 2012 12:35 PM:

    "All Sam wanted to do was to bring low-cost shopping to little towns across the South and the Plains. Is it his fault factories and businesses there never paid their workers to afford much else in right-to-work states? It's his kids and grandkids and other heirs who act like hedge fund managers."

    Hmmm....I think you are half right. Sam did service small towns in the South and the Plains. However, Sam Walton was no philanthropist. He was a genius retailer for 2 reasons:

    1. Inventory Management. Not having a product that a customer wants to buy is called an 'Out of Stock' (OOS). Sam Walton was fanatical in arranging ordering, stocking, delivery and in-store auditing functions to keep OOS as close to zero as possible.

    2. Relative Competitive Superiority. Sam Walton discovered an edge over the national retailers like Sears that had dominated the U.S. market. He realized that unlike major retailers who had to operate in fiercely contested urban retail markets, he could set up a good small general merchandise store in a small retail market and OWN it. And that is what he did in small town after small town. He was able to create a virtual monopoly in many of the retails markets in which he did business.

    Also, you are wrong about the predatory practices and the impacts on suppliers. They all started when Sam was still involved in the business. Walmart became so big, and was so relentless in applying cost-cutting pressure, that suppliers were forced to constantly cut or limit their own margins (and hence wages). Plus, its been over 10 years since I read any of the academic literature on Walmart, but at that time they still fostered a paternalistic, authoritarian and faux 'family environment.

  • shk on November 25, 2012 2:39 PM:

    Three questions for those hostile to walmart: (1) is Walmart's focus on (and tremendous skill at) supply chain efficiency a bad thing?; if so, why?; (3) what would yo propose to do about it?

    Walmart recognized earlier and better than anyone else that putting and keeping goods on the shelf is the biggest controllable cost in retail and that technology offered revolutionary opportunities to reduce those costs. I grew up in retail and understand the old method of having a low level manager walk the aisles counting cans, checking it against an order trigger list (i.e, once there are less than X tubes of Crest on the shelf, order a case), filling out a weekly order, calling it in to your wholesaler, checking the delivery against your order when it arrived, physically pricing each can and placing it on the shelves. There are a lot of crap jobs toed up in that process, and tremendous resulting costs. Technoloigy offered a way out, but its adoption was not inevitable. The basic reason that K Mart is now an empty shell is their unwillingness to make the necessary large investment in technology and to adapt their systems and culture to take advantage of the technology. Viva K Mart?

  • Roger on November 26, 2012 11:51 AM:

    How do you consider "several hundred workers" picketing, out of a Walmart workforce of 1.4 million, to be a success? There seems to be pretty close to zero support for your position among actual Walmart workers. If you chose not to shop there, then don't.