A Walmart Thanksgiving -- poverty wages and worker intimidation

This month may prove to be one of the most historic in Walmart’s half-century-long existence. On Monday, Walmart announced plans to replace CEO Michael Duke, who has presided over depressed sales figures, bribery scandals, and controversy over the company’s poverty-level wages.

On Black Friday, Walmart workers and their community allies will mount protests at 1,500 retail stores across the nation – the biggest day of protests in Walmart’s history – for higher wages, more full-time jobs and an end to employer retaliation.

Earlier this month, workers and their allies participated in strikes and protests in California, Florida, Washington, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

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And last week, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board confirmed what employees have long known: Walmart has been using unlawful intimidation and coercion against employees who dare to speak up against poverty wages and poor conditions at the country’s largest corporation.

The charges that the General Counsel may issue against Wal-Mart are sweeping in scope. Adopting unlawful behavior in fourteen states, Wal-Mart store managers “threatened, surveilled, disciplined and/or terminated employees in anticipation of or in response to employees' protected concerted activities.” Walmart conducted its unlawful behavior over a period of several months, starting before last year’s Black Friday protests in November 2012 and continuing through protests around the company’s AGM in June 2013.  

Walmart’s unlawful behavior was not simply the result of overzealous actions by a few rogue managers at isolated stores. Instead, it appears to be part of a concerted and systematic company-wide effort to silence courageous employees who speak out against low wages and poor conditions. The unlawful actions included comments by a senior spokesperson on national television that workers may suffer “consequences” for participating in strikes.

The General Counsel’s willingness to authorize a complaint against Wal-Mart is important not only for those employees who suffered unlawful reprisals for participating in legal strikes and protests, but also for all the company’s 1.3 million employees who have for years faced the threat of intimidation if they speak against poverty wages and bad jobs.

Fear of management retaliation remains a significant problem at Walmart, one that continues to limit employee participation in the ongoing strikes and protests. The General Counsel’s action should assure Walmart workers that the federal government will not allow the company to violate labor law with impunity, but the penalties available to the Board are inadequate and Walmart is no stranger to allegations of coercing and intimidating employees. During the previous period of sustained employee protests at the company, the NLRB issued 39 separate complaints involving over 100 separate incidents of unlawful behavior.  

Management retaliation ensures that wages and working conditions at Walmart remain poor.

The disastrous economic consequences of Walmart’s bad jobs and worker intimidation are now well known. Taxpayers pick up the tab for the company’s poverty-level wages. The company’s employees are often so poor that they and their dependents are among the nation’s biggest users of food stamps, health programs for low-income individuals and other forms of public assistance. This public subsidy of the nation’s largest corporation, owned by its richest family costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year. But those who suffer the most from poverty-level wages are its employees. In Canton, Ohio, a Walmart store last week held a food drive for employees who cannot afford a Thanksgiving meal.

Walmart could immediately stop intimidating workers, improve their conditions and pay a minimum wage of $25,000 per year for full-time work. Last week, the think tank Demos reported that if Walmart stopped buying back shares of its own stock – which adds nothing to its productivity — it could afford to raise employee wages by almost $6 per hour without increasing retail prices. In 2012, the company spent $7.6 billion to buy backs shares.

This week, Fortune magazine wrote that the number one headwind facing Walmart’s new CEO, Doug McMillon, would be “wage outrage.” This week’s protests at retail stores across the nation will give him a small taste of the outrage he can expect in the coming year.  

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

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