For the third consecutive year, Wal-Mart workers and thousands of their community allies will participate in strikes and protests nationwide on Black Friday to demand higher wages, better working conditions, consistent scheduling and full-time work. In recent weeks, labor actions at the world's largest retailer have escalated. Wal-Mart workers at more than 2,100 stores nationwide signed a petition requesting that the company commit to paying its workers $15 an hour and provide them with "consistent, full-time hours." Wal-Mart workers in the Los Angeles area participated in the company's first-ever sit-down strikes. Outside the stores, their actions attracted the support of many community organizations, including teachers, environmental groups, clergy members and civil rights leaders.
Wal-Mart jobs have become synonymous with poverty wages and poor working conditions. The company's low-road business model means that a majority of its 1.3 million U.S. employees survive on less than $25,000 a year. According to The Wall Street Journal, on average, Wal-Mart cashiers are paid $8.48 an hour. Hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart workers rely on food stamps, other public programs and food banks simply to get by, and American taxpayers pay $6.2 billion annually to subsidize Wal-Mart's poverty wages. Last month, Wal-Mart announced it was cutting health insurance for employees who work less than 30 hours a week. As Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said last week: "Wal-Mart's shoddy business model is singlehandedly wreaking havoc on American families ... and making it impossible for hundreds of thousands of workers to have a shot at the American Dream."
This year's Black Friday protests at Wal-Mart stores will likely be the largest in the 60-year history of the company, and last Wednesday's Global Day of Action, involving Wal-Mart workers in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, demonstrates that the struggle for respect for labor rights at Wal-Mart is an international struggle involving workers on several continents.
The tide may be finally turning against billion-dollar corporations like Wal-Mart that provide substandard jobs and expect taxpayers to pick up the tab. As a result of escalating protests, international action and community support, workers are finally being heard concerning poverty wages, lack of hours and erratic scheduling, meager benefits, and dead-end jobs. Federal legislation such as the Schedules That Work Act, Fair Minimum Wage Act and Paycheck Fairness Act, and state legislation such as "bad boss acts" (which would require Wal-Mart to pay a fee for forcing employees onto taxpayer-supported programs) would help counteract some of the retail giant's worst practices. These bills would give Wal-Mart workers a much-needed pay raise, provide them with greater predictability and control over their scheduling, and make it easier for them to sue their employer for pay discrimination. However, none of the bills have any chance of passing the GOP Congress.
Moreover, Wal-Mart is not the only billion-dollar corporation to provide poverty wages and erratic schedules. McDonald's and several other major fast-food franchises do exactly the same, as do many other major retailers, such as Target, IKEA and Home Depot. In an effort to improve the lot of low-wage retail workers, San Francisco city supervisors will vote this week on a "retail workers bill of rights" that would provide workers with more hours, greater predictability in their scheduling and additional compensation for short-term employer changes in their schedules.
The San Francisco legislation would be an important step forward. But piecemeal improvements in liberal cities that don't have Wal-Mart stores will not be enough to protect the nation's growing army of low-wage retail workers who suffer from poverty wages and poor conditions. Ultimately, workers will only win respect at Wal-Mart and similar employers through a strong, independent voice at work — a union.
Logan is professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.