Monday, November 26, 2012

Walmart Walk Out

I did time in retail so I have plenty of sympathy for the Walmart employees who want to organize.  I remember well the erratic and unpredictable schedules which made having other employment or school very difficult if not impossible.  I remember the hours just barely short of full time so they could get the maximum profitability out of you without the cost of full time benefits.  I remember the very low pay that made monthly bill time a drama of anxiety, together with abject begging and borrowing to make ends meet, even with full time employment.  I remember having to spend many a Christmas Eve with panicked and angry shoppers.  I remember the thousands of little assaults on one's dignity daily, enough to try the patience of Job.

I never worked for Walmart.  I worked for both heads of the 2 headed monster of book retail back in the 1990s, Barnes & Noble and Borders, 2 years each.

I consider myself fairly lucky.  I was just down on my luck (although that flat stretch lasted almost 6 years).  I worked with lots of others down on their luck or just starting out; actors, writers, musicians, artists, teachers, academics, even a few scientists.  I can't imagine retail as a career, even in management (especially in management).

Walmart is the largest single employer in the USA, larger than the Federal government including all 3 branches of the military.

Robert Reich points out that 50 years ago, the nation's largest employer was General Motors whose average hourly wages and benefits for workers totaled $50 per hour in today's money.
Today Walmart pays an average wage of about $8.81 with no benefits.
Reich points out a study and a proposal by the think tank Demos to raise the average pay of retail employees to $25000 per year, a move that would lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and raise prices only minimally.  Demos argues that the extra money in more pockets could actually boost retail sales, perhaps by as much as 4 to 5 billion dollars.

I think it's a great proposal.  I agree with Demos and Robert Reich that it would be a great humane and self interested thing to do, and a huge service to our country.

It will never happen.

Reich and Demos hope that those in power to make these changes happen will see the reasonableness and benefit of these proposals and will act on them.  I think they do and they don't care.  They are doing quite well off the present arrangement.  The Waltons who own Walmart are the wealthiest family in the USA.  They are expected to receive 2.7 billion dollars in dividend payments this year alone.  Walmart received 2.1 billion dollars in tax breaks from federal, state, and local governments.  Meanwhile, Walmart employees and their families cost taxpayers the most of any employees of any business in public funding for health care.  Why should the Waltons or their other shareholders care about changing this arrangement?

Because Walmart is so big, it sets the payscales for most other large retailers (the only possible exception might be Costco).  Ever so hip and quasi-upscale Target pays its employees less than Walmart.

The only way the retail industry will change its ways will be for its workers to demand it. 

I don't know how big the Walmart Walk Out on Black Friday was (I suspect it was tiny), but even one employee walking out is a start.  I'm amazed that the effort to organize Walmart workers survives at all.  The company spent a lot of time and money trying to squash it, and the Reagan era labor laws make effective organizing almost impossible by privileging management over employees in law.

I wish some other union than the UFCW was involved.  My own personal experience with them was not a good one.  I'd prefer to see the United Auto Workers in charge of this.  But I wish the union and Walmart employees every success in their struggle.

I try never to shop at Walmart, but that's easy here in New York.  Such a stand is much harder in thousands of small towns across the country where Walmart is the local economy; the main employer and sometimes the only retailer in town, or in the county.

Here a company man tries to intimidate the photographer who took this picture.


This post is a great excuse to run an encore of this.  First protesting on Black Friday, and now dancing in Walmart.  Is nothing sacred?  What would Jeezus say?


Leonard said...

Can you imagine the +sales that would be generated at customer level IF the salesperson/stockperson/etc. loved their job and career? (instead on resenting the greedsters that nose them out of a decent living...btw, I have it on very good authority that Buyers at Wal-smart do very well on the side).

JCF said...

I confess I shop at Walmart, for a specific product, once in a blue moon (I could get it at Target, instead }-/ )

I further confess how smart I felt, getting my (T'giving Day) butternut squash at the Dollar Store (what do THEY pay?!), instead of the (unionized, just won a strike) regular grocery: "It was a dollar at the DS, whereas it was $1.19lb/3-4 lbs each, at the grocery!" Yeah, show God how "thankful" you are, JCF, by ripping off your brothers&sisters. Oh So Smart.

In America, we're basically raised to be @ssholes . . . unless we consciously/conscientiously fight against it. I have a long ways to go. Kyrie eleison.

MarkBrunson said...

Leonard Clark,

I've often thought the same.

Imagine, too, how well the company would do if the shareholders whose return is being maximized were the workers . . . who profit, instead of getting paid crap to make someone else rich.