Yesterday marked the third annual Black Friday protests and strikes at Walmart, the largest private employer in this country. The Walton family, controlling owners of the company, is America's richest family, with holdings valued at almost $150 billion dollars. For decades, Walmart has remained an employer powerhouse based upon a business model of low wages, poor benefits and union busting.
Walmart officials categorically deny any efforts to squelch workers' organizing. At the protest at Bellevue, WA, yesterday, officials are quick to argue that the small percentage of employee participation in the strikes proves that the vast majority of workers are happy. When I asked their public relations representative to comment on the counter interpretation that limited employee participation could be due to an intimidating environment that scares would-be strikers into silence, she had no comment.
And though the spin-doctors of Walmart would have you believe that these protests and strikes are simply exaggerated demonstrations from a very vocal minority, the growing number of petitions, strikes, and studies say otherwise.
Walmart's abuses are too numerous to catalog in their entirety. The most famously egregious includes a company-backed Walmart employee food drive during Thanksgiving last year for other Walmart workers living on Food Stamps and too poor to buy food for the holiday. In 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed alleging that women are paid, on average, $5,200 less per year than their already low-paid male counterparts. In 2005, Walmart shut down a profitable store in Quebec simply because it successfully unionized. In 2012, Walmart helped sabotage a safety improvement movement in their contracted overseas sweatshops, including a building that collapsed in Bangladesh and killed over 1,000 people.
It's not just the Walmart workers who suffer. While folks might think that they're saving money by shopping at Walmart, a 2013 a congressional report found otherwise. Walmart's wages are so low that many of their employees require public assistance such as food stamps. The report calculated that a single "Walmart Supercenter" cost taxpayers anywhere from $904,542 to nearly $1.75 million dollars a year in taxpayer subsidies for employees. Another study estimated that that total annual cost to tax payers nationally was a staggering $6.2 billion dollars. And the kicker? Eighteen percent of the food stamp distributions are spent at Wal-Mart stores; that means that taxpayers essentially subsidized the $16 billion dollars in profits that Walmart made last year twice--once to subsidize wages, and once to subsidize the shoppers buying company products on sale in the stores.
Based on numbers that Walmart itself released in a Goldman-Sachs presentation in September of 2013, Fortune magazine calculated that Wal-Mart could afford to increase wages by 50%. Demos, a non-profit research group, calculated that Wal-Mart could afford to pay every employee $14.89/hr without raising prices. That's directly in line with the demand of $15/hr that protestors and workers are asking for, (but still not as much as paid by Walmart competitor Costco).
Walmart's litany of injustices are enraging and frustrating, but it's not that interesting. It's simply another tale of the rich getting richer off the backs of the poor.