As the retailer opens its doors earlier than ever for Thanksgiving sales, it faces its first strike in 50 years by disgruntled employees.
On Friday, Americans by the millions will crowd into big-box retail shops to take advantage of bargains on wide-screen TVs and other electronics – necessities, as well as luxuries – all marked down in order to draw them in and have them line up outside in advance of the doors opening. And now, as we’ve learned, several chains plan to open at 8pm on Thanksgiving day itself.
The greatest irony of “Black Friday”, as it’s known, is that it’s seen as a celebration of consumerism, instead of a sign of desperation: when a Walmart worker was crushed to death by a Black Friday crowd in 2008, the news was accompanied with moralizing about American greed, rather than any discussion about low wages in the US.
Would people be so desperate for bargain shopping at already dirt-cheap places like Walmart if they themselves were making a decent living?
This year, Black Friday at Walmarts around the country will be marked by something other than just ultra-low prices. Workers, members of a labor union-backed organization called Organization United for Respect at Walmart (Our Walmart) will be striking and, along with their allies, holding rallies and actions to support the effort. Walmart has managed to go 50 years without a strike; many unions have tried and failed to organize workers. But in just a month and a half, the strikes have spread to stores across 12 cities, and Walmart is worried: the company has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
“There is power in Our, and we,” Vanzell Johnson, an Our Walmart member from Lancaster, Texas, told me last month. He’s frustrated with how the company treats its employees, not to mention the dismal wages. Workers around the country allege that despite the company’s supposed “open door policy”, they risk retaliation for speaking up about their conditions by having their hours cut or getting unfavorable shifts.
Walmart, as historian Bethany Moreton pointed out in her excellent book To Serve God and Walmart, was founded and grew in the heartland US where suspicion of chain stores and outsider money was skilfully turned by favorite son Sam Walton into support for his homegrown mega-chain.
Even today, Walmart’s low prices are used for a particular kind of populist appeal: by lowering the cost of living, the argument goes, Walmart helps people “live better”. In fact, they’ve adopted that as their tagline: “Save Money. Live Better.”
The Walmart workers who are now daring to challenge their bosses, meanwhile, have turned that mantra around: “Stand up. Live better” (pdf). Because they know that no matter how low prices at Walmart go, their low wages ensure that they are not, in fact, able to “live better”.
As internal documents have confirmed, Walmart maintains a cap on the wages an associate can make, limiting raises to 60 cents a year for “flawless” performance. Janet Sparks, a Walmart worker from Baker, Louisiana who’s been with the company since 2005, told me that she had colleagues who hadn’t gotten a raise since 2006 because of the cap.
Walmart is by far the nation’s largest retailer, with 2.2 million employees (the next largest is Target with 365,000), and its low wages have set the tone for a nation where the majority of jobs created in the so-called economic recovery pay less than $13.83 per hour.
Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan thinkthank Demos and author of its new report, Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Economy Overall, has said:
“Walmart has been shown to come into a community, pay lower wages than the traditional wage standard, and actually depress the wage standard in the area.”
Manuela Rosales makes $10.70 an hour at the Pico Rivera, California Walmart. I heard her break down in tears on a conference call, as she explained that the $750 or so she takes home after taxes every couple of weeks barely lets her care for her two-year-old son.
“They have it set up to take it or leave it and most people will not leave it,” Johnson said. With average unemployment still hovering around 8% (and much high for minorities), workers are forced to take what they can get, even if “what they can get” leaves them working long hours over the holidays. If Walmart were to adopt the higher standard she suggests in her report, Ruetschlin asserts:
“Being the largest employer in the United States … they would have significant impact. Based on prior research, it’s absolutely reasonable to think they would raise standards for everyone.”
The Walmart strikers taking the risk of challenging the company on its most profitable day, then, are truly striking for all of us. And it’s a large risk, because if they’re fired, they go out into a job market where there are few opportunities and many others in the same line also waiting for an opening.
Beyond the wage issue, the strikers are fighting for respect and fair treatment: the ultimatum given the company in order to prevent the Black Friday actions was not a raise, but a call to end the retaliation against workers who speak out. As Moreton has noted, the company managed for many years to have happy employees who felt they were part of the Walmart family; it’s the treatment on the job that drove long-time employees like Sparks to speak out.
“Most working people spend most of their time at work, so when I’m at work, I want to be recognized as being taken care of,” Johnson said. Colby Harris, one of the Walmart strikers, told the Nation’s Josh Eidelson that he’s determined to stay at Walmart and keep fighting:
If you change Walmart, and you change corporate America, it can really better a lot of people’s lives.
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