I have a piece up on Next American City today about the increasing prevalence of low-wage work, the decline of traditional unions (due to our broken labor laws), and the unconventional organizing that is trying to fill the void.
Income inequality is the issue of our generation and it is fueled in large part, by an economy that mostly creates low-wage jobs. One out of every four jobs now pays less than $10 an hour. This gross inequality in income is largely the result of concrete policy choices made by our political elites, which have weakened unions—which are the only policy force that consistently stands up for the economic interests of middle and working class Americans—and empowered organized business interests. (Read Winner-Take-All Politics for more: The decline of organized labor maps neatly to the rise of unbelievable levels of economic inequality.)
There are few companies that typify this trend better than Wal-Mart, the Arkansas retailer founded by Sam Walton. The company built its massive fortune—four of the top ten richest Americans are members of the Walton family—on poverty level wages and workplace intimidation. One study found that Wal-Mart paid 30 percent less than its unionized grocery store counterparts and, even more importantly, generally lacked the features needed to sustain their families: Regular, full time work hours, retirement security, comprehensive healthcare, and a career ladder.
Wal-Mart enforces these conditions through fear, as the Human Rights Watch details extensively in the above link. In an excellent essay entitled “Wal-Mart, John Tate, and Their Anti-Union America,” historian Nelson Lichtenstein documents the operational acuity of the company’s anti-union tactics. When the workers start getting restive, management calls a hotline to Wal-Mart HQ, which quickly dispatches, by corporate jet, a team of crack intimidation artists to quell the uprising. Within a year, activist employees have been skillfully maneuvered out the door. As Lichtenstein writes in a recent Dissent piece: “Wal-Mart gets rid of such troublemakers in a more subtle fashion over a period of weeks and months. They will have their hours cut, be put on awkward shifts, or dismissed for poor performance.”
In the face of these 100% effective anti-union tactics, workers have been organizing under a group called OUR Wal-Mart. They are seeking a more humane and regularized working model and an end to retaliations. But they are not demanding union recognition.
Earlier this month, Walmart employees in twelve cities went on strike, a level of coordinated action unprecedented in the company’s history. (The numbers of employees who actually walked out are quite small—90-odd workers of the mega-retailer’s 1.3 million in the U.S. and 2.2 million worldwide—but it is worth remembering that the sitdown strikes that eventually organized the auto industry were also accomplished by a slim segment of the workforce.)
These actions against the world’s largest private employer is particularly relevant to cities not only because the strikers were concentrated in urban regions—the wave of walkouts started in Los Angeles and spread to Dallas, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area, Miami, the Washington, D.C., area, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Chicago and Orlando, as well as parts of Kentucky, Missouri and Minnesota…[To my knowledge, No Pennsylvania Wal-Mart workers have walked out as of this writing.]
OUR Wal-Mart recently announced their intention to conduct a series of walk outs and other actions on Black Friday, the busiest day of the shopping year, if their demands aren’t met and the company refuses to come to the table. If they do, it will be the first time Wal-Mart has made such a concession: OUR Wal-Mart has filed over 20 unfair labor practice complaints against the company in the last couple months.
“It’s not just [Wal-Marts in] one state, or two states, that having a lot of problems,” says one OUR Wal-Mart activist from a Midwestern city (she preferred her name and exact store location be withheld for fear of retaliation). “A lot of people aren’t acting because they are scared. And I won’t lie, I’m scared myself. But we are human beings. It’s not just that we need a job, we want some kind of respect: If it wasn’t for us where would ya’ll be? I hope Black Friday will open up eyes at the home offices.”
(I’ll have a post tomorrow about the food service industry’s part in the low-income economy, specifically in Philly.)
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