Why Wal-Mart workers are protesting

Like their counterparts at McDonald’s and Burger King, Wal-Mart workers are protesting for higher wages – a minimum of at least $25,000 per year for full time employees – and an end to management retaliation against workers who speak out against low wages, poor conditions and employer intimidation. Since June, Wal-Mart has fired 20 workers and disciplined at least 80 others who had participated in strikes and protests.

The past 12 months has been the most eventual year in Wal-Mart’s 50-year history. Thursday’s national day of action is simply the latest round of protests that began with the first-ever strikes by Wal-Mart workers and workers in warehouses under contract with Wal-Mart last September. After a highly successful national day of action on Black Friday, Wal-Mart workers again walked off the job in April, protesting low wages, a lack of full-time jobs, and unpredictable scheduling. Then in early June, Wal-Mart workers participated in the company’s first ever “prolonged strikes,” walking off the job for up to a week to protest poor wages and conditions in advance of the company’s annual general meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Wal-Mart’s poor wages and benefits are not only a raw deal for its 1.4 million retail employees. As the retail giant expands more deeply into urban America, Wal-Mart’s low-road practices are now threatening good retail jobs, such as those at Costco, which pays its employees a living wage and provides affordable benefits.  Over the past few years, retail employers in California and several other states have demanded, and won, sweeping wage and benefit concessions, and the introduction of a two-tier compensation system, because the company allegedly now has to compete with Wal-Mart’s low wages and benefits.

Wal-Mart’s low-road model doesn’t only drive down wages and standards in retail. As the largest importer in the nation, Wal-Mart’s practices frequently set the standard for logistics and supply chain workers. Wal-Mart’s “Plus One” policy, which squeezes suppliers and contractors to reduce prices, increase quality or speed up delivery every year, makes low wages and poor working conditions for millions of non-retail workers virtually inevitable.

And Wal-Mart’s poverty wages are also a raw deal for American taxpayers, who are often forced to pick up the tab. A single Wal-Mart store might cost taxpayers as much $1 million per year in higher usage of public assistance programs – including food stamps and health programs for low income individuals -- by both Wal-Mart employees and their dependents.

Thursday’s protests come at a critical time. Within the next week, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray must decide whether or not to sign into law the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would require big box retailers within the District, including Wal-Mart, to pay their employees at least $12.50 per hour. Wal-Mart has threatened to cancel plans to build 3 stores in D.C., and may reconsider 3 others on which it has already broken ground, if the bill becomes law. But a broad alliance of labor, religious, immigrant rights, and community organizations across the nation are monitoring developments in D.C., and if Gray signs the bill, the living wage measure could serve as a model for other large cities.

Wal-Mart and fast food workers will not be able to form unions or bargain with their employers anytime soon. But this does not mean their courageous job actions have had no impact. For the first time, Wal-Mart has come under real and sustained pressure to improve its low road employment practices. Responding to criticism, Wal-Mart has promised greater transparency in its scheduling practices. The protests have kick-started a national conversation about the enormous and growing number of jobs with poverty-level wages, and have boosted the political campaign for a long-overdue increase to the federal minimum wage.

And perhaps most importantly, protests by low-wage workers are only likely to grow in size and frequency in the months to come.

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.

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