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Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday As America Confronts Growing Inequality

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AFL-CIO and St. Joseph's Valley Project Jobs with Justice members at W. Ireland Road Walmart in South Bend, IN
(image by ourwalmart/Flickr)
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 This Friday , the busiest shopping day of the year, tens of millions of Americans will travel to Walmart stores to look for holiday discounts on computers, toys, and cell phones as well as to buy groceries and basic household items.  But at more than 1,500 of Walmart's 4,000 stores, shoppers will be greeted by  Walmart employees handing out leaflets and holding picket signs  -- "Walmart: Stop Bullying, Stop Firing, Start Paying" and "We're Drawing a Line at the Poverty Line: $25,000/year" --  protesting the company's abusive labor practices, including poverty-level wages, stingy benefits, and irregular work schedules that make it impossible for their families to make ends meet.

The Black  Friday  rallies and demonstrations represent a dramatic escalation of the growing protest movement among employees of America's largest private employer.  But they also represent the vanguard of a sharp challenge to the nation's widening economic divide and the declining standard of living among the majority of Americans. 

National leaders and community groups from every corner of the country will join Walmart workers at protests leading up to and on Black  Friday . Members of Congress, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN); women's groups including the National Organization for Women, and  environmental and consumer organizations such as The Sierra Club and the National Consumers League have all pledged support, saying that the Walmart workers' fight is a fight for all Americans.

It is sometimes difficult to recognize historical events as they unfold, but it is likely that future generations will look at these Walmart protests as a major turning point that helped move the nation in a new direction, similar to the sit-down strikes among Flint auto workers in 1937, the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins by civil rights activists in 1960, and the first Earth Day in 1970 that jump-started the environmental movement. 

The swelling anger over inequality began with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in September 2011 and spread quickly from New York City to cities across the country. The Occupiers were soon evicted from the parks and other places they temporarily inhabited,  but movement's  message has continued to resonate with the American public.  Activists as well as many politicians and pundits have embraced its "1% vs. 99%" theme, which has quickly become part of the Americans' everyday conversations.

Public opinion polls reveal that a significant majority of Americans believe that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations, that our political and economic system  unfairly favors the wealthy, and that wealthy people don't pay their fair share of taxes. Surveys also document that Americans think that people who work full-time should not be trapped in poverty.  A July poll conducted Hart Research Associates showed 80 percent of Americans back hiking the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and adjusting it for the cost of living in future years. Not surprisingly, 92 percent of Democrats voice support for this proposal, but so do 80 percent of independents, 62 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Southern whites and 79 percent of people with incomes over $100,000.

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But public opinion alone doesn't translate into changes in politics and public policy. For that to occur, people have to take collective action.  The past year has witnessed a growing protest movement for social and economic justice.  Workers at fast-food chains like McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy's have mounted several protest actions, including a one-day strike at more than a thousand restaurants in over 50 cities in August, demanding a base wage of $15 an hour.  A bold grassroots crusade is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, energized by young activists who call themselves "Dreamers" and embraced by a growing number of business leaders and Republicans. 

Environmental activists are waging multi-pronged protests to stop the Keystone pipeline and push universities to divest from major energy corporations that exacerbate global warming. Over the past decade, and particularly during the last year, the campaign for gay and lesbian rights has transformed American culture, shifting public opinion and state laws about same-sex marriage and other issues.

Growing anger over gun violence, restrictions on voting rights, and overseas sweatshops have triggered prayer vigils, rallies, and civil disobedience, like the "Moral  Monday " protests in North Carolina and the student sit-in at the Florida governor's office. In Texas, North Carolina, Maine and elsewhere, women's rights activists staged vigils at state capitals to protect women's access to health care and reproductive freedom -- and challenge those who are trying to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics. Across the country, homeowners facing foreclosure due to banks' reckless predatory loans have linked arms and resisted eviction, while their community groups and unions push elected officials to hold major lenders accountable with fines, settlement agreements, and jail time for top executives.

But no institution epitomizes the realities of hyper-capitalism as much as Walmart, and so it isn't surprising that the giant retailer has increasingly become the target of protests, not only by its employees but also by a broad coalition of consumers, community groups, unions, and others. 

Walmart - with 1.3 million employees in the U.S. and more than two million around the globe -- has probably confronted more opposition on more different issues than any corporation in history. 

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  • To environmentalists, Walmart is a dirty word. Despite its ballyhooed sustainability work, Walmart's greenhouse gas emissions are growing, not shrinking.  In May, the company  pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and had to pay an $82 million fine for improperly handling hazardous waste, pesticides, and other materials in violation of federal laws. Walmart also finances politicians who fight action to address the climate crisis, including funding the campaigns of some of the most powerful climate change deniers in Congress.
     
  • Women employees filed suit against the company for its long-standing practice of paying women less than men more for the same jobs. 
     
  • Labor, faith-based groups, and organizations representing small businesses in dozens of cities have waged successful battles to stop Walmart from opening new stores, warning that the presence of a Walmart outlet drives out locally-owned merchants and depresses wages for employees in unionized grocery stores and other retailers.
     
  • Immigrant rights activists have condemned Walmart for knowingly doing business with contractors who exploit undocumented immigrants to work as Walmart's janitors. On several occasions, federal agents have raided Walmart  stores across the nation and searched offices at the company's Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters to investigate its abuses.
     
  • Media exposes  last year of Walmart's  membership in the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council forced the company (but not the Walton Family Foundation) to withdraw its affiliation.  ALEC is now infamous for pushing a conservative legislative agenda, including the notorious "Stand Your Ground" laws, which came out of an ALEC working committee co-chaired by a Walmart executive in 2005, and which contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin last year. Not surprisingly, Walmart is the nation's largest seller of guns and ammunition, earning it the ire of public safety advocates.
     
  • Public education advocates have criticized the Walton family for donating donated tens of millions of dollars to conservative organizations and political candidates who seek to privatize public schools and promote high-stakes testing and huge subsidies to private education companies.
     
  • Members of Congress have criticized Walmart for paying its employees so little that many are eligible for food stamps and Medicaid, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab for the company's poverty pay policies.  A study released in May by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce examined data received from the State of Wisconsin and found that a single Walmart store could cost taxpayers between900,000 and1.7 million a year in government subsidies.
     
  • Last year, the New York Times uncovered Walmart's massive bribery of Mexican officials, reporting that the company paid more than $24 million in bribes to gain approvals to expand its operations. Top Walmart executives  knew about the  bribery scheme, but quickly ended an internal investigation and even promoted one of the company officials involved in the scandal. 
     
  • In April, workers at Thai shrimp farms supplying Walmart went on strike, protesting low wages, inadequate toilet access, and substandard housing. Human Rights Watch reported that working conditions were akin to debt bondage.
     
  • Walmart has also recently earned well-deserved negative publicity for its complicity in thwarting safety improvements at Bangladesh sweatshops that make clothes sold in Walmart stores. One of them was the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building near Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, where last April at least 1,100 workers were killed after the building collapsed - the deadliest garment industry disaster in history.

But beyond these specific offenses, Walmart has become a symbol -- and a major cause -- of the nation's widening gap between the super-rich and the rest. The company's controlling family, the Waltons, have a net worth of more than $144 billion. This is more than the total wealth of 40 percent of all Americans -- over 125 million people. Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke received over $20 million in compensation last year. Last year Wal-Mart made $17 billion in profits. 

Bill Simon, CEO of Wal-Mart's American operations, recently told financial analysts that 475,000 employees make more than $25,000 a year. In doing so, Simon unwittingly confirmed that more than half and as many as two-thirds of the company's American employees -- as many as 825,000 workers -- make less than that.

In what has become a major embarrassment for the company, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that a Wal-Mart store in Canton, Ohio, had organized a food drive,  asking its own employees to donate to their hungry coworkers so they could afford a Thanksgiving meal.  The store manager no doubt meant to help his employees, but for most Americans the food drive symbolized Walmart's greed rather than its good intentions.  The incident quickly became front-page news, an instant sensation on radio talk shows and on the blogosphere, the subject of editorial cartoons, and the butt of jokes by  Stephen Colbert  and others.

Economists note that if Walmart paid its employees at least $25,000 a year, a million and a half workers would be lifted out of poverty. That would mean more money staying in communities to support local businesses, helping to create at least 100,000 new jobs.

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Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College. His most recent book is  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame  (Nation Books). Other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the (more...)
 

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Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday As America Confronts Growing Inequality