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Why Walmart Matters to 21st Century Working-Class Struggle

Sarah Jaffe covers the historical context of the struggles of Walmart workers fighting for better pay, conditions and rights at work.

Walmart workers and supporters strike outside a Walmart Neighborhood Market in downtown Chicago, Illinois, on November 28, 2014. (Photo: UFCW International Union)

Part of the Series

What connects the recent movements that have shaken the foundations of US inequality? In her acclaimed book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, Sarah Jaffe introduces us to the people making trouble from Wisconsin to Ferguson, from Occupy Wall Street to Moral Mondays. Click here to order what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.”

In chapter three of Necessary Trouble, Sarah Jaffe covers the struggles of Walmart workers fighting for better pay, conditions and rights at work. This excerpt addresses the historical context for that struggle.

The image conjured by the term “working class” in the United States has been one of mostly white men toiling in a factory, wearing hard hats and those oft-evoked blue collars. Our labor policy was shaped around those men and the assumption that workers get health insurance from their jobs, have a pension on which to retire, and make a “family wage” that allows them to support a wife, who stays home to take care of the kids and the cooking and cleaning.

And yet with each year, that picture becomes less and less reflective of reality. The working class never was all white or all male, but now, more and more, the real story of the working class is the story of people like Colby Harris and Venanzi Luna, black and Latina, working in retail, restaurants, or another form of service work. The real story is not that women and people of color have moved into positions of power, but that more men are in “casualized” — that is, in temporary, part-time, or presumably “unskilled” service jobs.

The occupations projected to add the most jobs between 2012 and 2022 are retail sales, personal care and home health care, nursing, and food service workers, including fast food. Except for nursing, those fields have a median annual income of around $20,000. That’s less than half, adjusted for inflation, of the family-sustaining wage paid to unionized factory workers in their heyday.

The story of outsourcing — of plant closures and “free”-trade deals and managers swaggering into the shop and announcing that the jobs were ending — has been well told elsewhere. We have also been told a story of our brave new information economy, where knowledge will prevail. But the fact remains that even as Americans go into debt for advanced degrees to get those technical jobs, they’re more likely to end up in the service industry. The choice to call what we have a “knowledge economy,” rather than a service economy, was just that — a choice, one that sounded more exciting than the reality of low-wage feminized service work for the majority.

Service jobs as a share of US working hours increased 30 percent between 1980 and 2005, and their prevalence has only grown since the Great Recession. One 2012 study found that although two-thirds of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, 58 percent of the jobs regained by the time of the study were instead low-wage, paying less than $13.84 per hour. Retail sales alone added well over 300,000 jobs in this period, at an average wage of $10.97 an hour; just behind was food prep, paying an average of just over $9 an hour. The trend had begun before the crisis, but after the crisis hit, it was impossible to pretend that something fundamental hadn’t changed.

There could be, and have been, plenty of decent jobs in service industries; to assume otherwise is to mistake the historical conditions that produced stable jobs and high wages in manufacturing for intrinsic characteristics of the industry. In 2014, I spoke with Rosa Ramirez, a temp worker who had been shuffled through multiple factories outside of Chicago, sometimes for just a couple of days at a time, doing work that was once done by unionized full-time workers. Her experience and that of thousands of others like her should remind us that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about any type of work; safe conditions, regular hours, decent pay, and respect can do a lot to improve even the worst job.

The rise of customer service work and its attendant demand for “people skills,” such as patience and communication — which are typically associated with women, and often assumed not to be skills at all — created a crisis for the old masculine producer narrative. Service labor certainly was not new, but it had long been ignored by a labor movement mostly focused on industrial work. When that industrial work began to fade, labor’s lack of a foothold in the growing service sector made it harder for it to withstand increasing attacks. Labor had failed to recognize and value service work, leaving the door open for the conditions in service jobs to creep into the rest of the economy. Factories that had employed full-timers with benefits could drive wages down by employing temps like Rosa Ramirez, temps who were easily fired and were paid less than permanent employees. Even the once-strong automobile industry is now rife with lower-paid temporary workers.

Women were commonly assumed not to need full-time jobs because they would have a husband who worked; women were presumed to prefer part-time or short-term gigs that would allow them to be home with the family while making a little “pin money” for themselves. Those assumptions continued to be held even in the 2000s. Women who joined the Dukes v. Walmart sex discrimination suit reported being told by their managers that male coworkers made more money because they had to support their families.

(Image: Nation Books)(Image: Nation Books)The emotional labor that went into a day’s customer service work — managing irate customers, soothing wounded egos, spending hours helping people find just the right item — was likewise not seen as skilled work. Skills were valued — or perceived at all — based on how much power the workers who had them wielded in society, not the tools they wielded on the job. The men who built the labor movement in the skilled trades and on factory floors won power for themselves, but they had their own incentives for not helping women workers build power of their own — incentives that wound up dovetailing with the interests of the boss. Leaving women and their work out of the labor movement wound up hurting the movement and working people as a whole; this is one of the reasons why organizing service workers like those at Walmart is so important.

Retail workers used to be excluded from federal minimum-wage laws — John F. Kennedy made their low wages a campaign issue in 1960, though Walmart founder Sam Walton famously simply refused to pay the new wage when it first passed. Today, while retail is governed by wage and hour laws, other service workers still fight to be covered by them — and service workers who get tips, from waiters to the people who push wheelchairs in the airport, are legally mandated a minimum of only $2.13 an hour by federal law.

A study by economist Catherine Ruetschlin found that a wage floor of $25,000 a year for a full-time worker in retail would affect more than 5 million retail workers and their families. More than 95 percent of those workers were over twenty, not teenagers, and more than half of them were responsible for providing at least half the family income. Such a raise would actually grow the economy and create new jobs, not kill them, as is commonly claimed.

Low-paid workers spend nearly everything they make; if they had more money to spend, they would be much more likely to spend it than their bosses, who make far more than they can spend at any time.

Scheduling, too, became a central issue in retail and food service work. Once, manufacturing workers fought for the eight-hour day; their battles shaped the workday and workweek that we now think of as normal, resulting in the Fair Labor Standards Act and time-and-a-half pay for overtime for waged workers. But restaurants and retail shops are open at different times — in part so that those working a nine-to-five day in other sectors of the economy have time to eat and shop — and make different demands on their employees’ time.

In somewhat of a nasty coincidence, computerized scheduling systems entered the retail world around the same time as the financial crisis was wiping out jobs around the country. In an already weak job market, workers are less likely to push back on encroachments made by the boss, and so few challenged a system that rapidly worsened. Patricia Scott, a sixteen-year Walmart associate in Federal Way, Washington, had had a set schedule for ten years. This regular schedule allowed her to make plans in advance, and she was able to count on a certain amount of work each week. But when the computers came in, her hours changed. “They always tell me, ‘Well, it’s not us, it’s the computer!'” she told me. “I’d say, ‘Tell the computer to fix it!'”

Walmart might have been the leader in computerized scheduling, but other firms quickly followed. The software saved managers time they would otherwise have to spend making up the schedule, but it also wrung every last dime in labor costs out of the system. It calculated staffing needs based not only on availability, but also on sales numbers, so that stores would be staffed with just enough people to get the job done throughout the peaks and valleys in sales during the workweek. Computerized scheduling systems prioritize workers who have unlimited availability, but that makes it hard for workers to get a second job. And if you have children to care for, forget it. Many of the women who populate these industries struggle to find child-care options that are flexible and affordable; one low-wage field feeds another as more workers, mostly women, do the child care, often for less than minimum wage. “Just-in-time” scheduling means workers’ needs come last, their hours sliced and diced as hours and minutes are shaved off of shifts.

The money adds up.

The eight-hour day movement demanded fewer working hours, but post-2008, workers were often fighting to get more. Involuntary part-time employment, when workers can only find part-time jobs but would prefer full-time, spiked in the recession years (from 644,000 in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010), and retail workers made up 18 percent of those who were involuntarily working part-time jobs. Fifty-eight percent of those making up the involuntary part-time retail workforce in 2015 were women. That means there are a whole lot of adults who would like to have a full-time, steady job with a schedule they can rely on and a paycheck that can feed their families, but who instead are making do on eight or nine dollars an hour, twenty hours a week. That doesn’t add up to a living.

The slack for all these low wages and insufficient hours is being picked up by all of us in the form of government programs that provide food assistance, health care, housing, tax credits, and more. A 2013 congressional study estimated that Walmart alone costs taxpayers between $3,015 and $5,815 per worker. That’s money that we should understand as a subsidy to Walmart, not to the workers — it allows Walmart to save billions in wages and benefits by pushing those costs onto the rest of us. And those Walmart and McDonald’s workers are taxpayers, too.

Bene’t Holmes, a twenty-five-year-old single mother, told me, “Recently I was forced to apply for food stamps just so my son and I don’t starve. Walmart is the country’s biggest beneficiary of food stamp dollars, and many of those dollars are coming from its own workers, like me.” She was right — some $13.5 billion every year in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds are spent at Walmart. After Bill Clinton, from Walmart’s home state of Arkansas, signed welfare reform into law, most welfare benefits for mothers like Holmes became short-term, yet Walmart continued to pocket welfare dollars, without a deadline.

Retail and the restaurant sector both have “upscale” and “downscale” markets, and while “upscale” dining or shopping doesn’t guarantee the workers are getting a bigger cut of the cash, it is certainly true that Walmart and fast-food restaurants cater to people at the lower end of the income scale. It is this argument that is used to claim that raising wages is impossible because it will drive up prices, even though profits at large chains have returned to prerecession levels and executives and shareholders continue to be compensated handsomely. But the service economy is no more required to be filled with low-wage, unstable jobs than the manufacturing sector was before it. It was shaped this way through particular historical and political circumstances.

Copyright (2016), Sarah Jaffe. Not to be reposted without permission of Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.