Walmart Workers Need a Raise and a Voice

Protesting walmart.(Photo: Asterio Tecson / Flickr)Last week, nonunion Walmart employees began the first “prolonged” strike in the 50-year history of the nation’s largest employer. In October and November, Walmart employees across the country participated in a series of one-day strikes and walkouts against the company in support of a minimum $13 per hour wage, more predictable scheduling and an end to management retaliation against employees who speak up at work. Walmart has grown accustomed to isolated protests in the past, but has always believed that they would quickly die out, given workers’ understandable fear of management retaliation.

But this time it may be different. Walmart workers in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington and elsewhere are striking for more full-time jobs, a minimum wage of $25,000 per year, improved working conditions, better health and pension benefits and basic respect on the job. Other protesting Walmart workers from Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota and elsewhere will participate in a week-long “Ride for Respect,” joining the strikers as they head for a national day of action at the company’s AGM in Bentonville, Arkansas on June 7.

Walmart’s “low-road” competitive practices hurt not only the company’s 1.3 million employees – who suffer from lost income, poor working conditions and economic insecurity – but it also hurt all American taxpayers. The nation’s largest private-sector employer is also the largest employer of workers – who according to a Bloomberg study earn an average of $8.81 an hour – dependent on food stamps, subsidized housing and child care, government health insurance for low-income individuals, and other forms of public assistance. The Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently released a report stating that the poverty wages and poor benefits at a single Walmart store might cost taxpayers as much $1 million per year in higher usage of public-assistance programs by both Walmart employees and their dependents.

Higher wages, better benefits and more full-time jobs at Walmart’s 4,000 stores across the nation, in contrast, would also have a broad-based beneficial economic impact. They would make Walmart workers less reliant on public assistance, help to end the enormous taxpayer subsidy of the world’s largest retailer, which is owned the country’s richest family, and give a much-needed boost to the economy of urban America.

But employees’ fear of management retaliation remains a serious obstacle to better jobs at Walmart. In the 2000s, National Labor Relations Board regional directors issued 39 complaints – involving 101 incidents of anti-union conduct – accusing the company of unlawful behavior. The national coalition representing the protesting workers, OUR Walmart, recently filed more than 30 new charges of unfair labor practices – involving 150 incidents where employees allege that Walmart management has violated their rights – with the NLRB. These charges document “widespread and egregious attempts by Walmart managers to silence workers who have been calling for a change of course at the company.” They include instances of retaliation – intimidation of workers who speak out, unlawful surveillance of organizers and termination of workers who participated in protest actions – against Walmart employees in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington.

Walmart management shows no signs of backing down from its adversarial stance. In response to the employees’ protests, Walmart’s army of lawyers has attempted to clamp down on freedom of speech and assembly by alleging that members of OUR Walmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and “allied community groups” have violated trespass laws in Arkansas, California, Florida and Washington. Walmart claims that the unprecedented strike action across the country is nothing more than a “publicity stunt,” and it has even dismissed the strikers as “paid agents” of the UFCW. According to the company’s chief operating officer, who attacked the protesters as “just plain wrong,” the striking workers “are not part of Walmart.”

Walmart workers cannot rely on management to provide them with better jobs and to end retaliation. The House report documenting the enormous cost to taxpayers of Walmart’s low-road strategies was a followup to a 2004 report that reached the same conclusions. Nothing has changed in the intervening 9 years, except that Walmart has continued to retaliate against workers who speak up against poverty wages and poor working conditions. The sub-poverty wages of Walmart’s part-time workers demonstrates the need for a significant increase in the federal minimum wage. And while the current strikes are not over issues of unionization, it is only by choosing a union that Walmart workers will eventually secure good jobs and respect at work. But Walmart management is determined to prevent them from ever having that choice.