Walmart gives up a little — workers fight for more

WW photo: G. Dunkel

WW photo: G. Dunkel

Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, hiring around 1 percent of all U.S. workers.  Its announcement that it will raise what it pays to 500,000 workers to at least $9 an hour in April and $10 an hour next year has had a major impact. And of course, the reaction on Wall Street was immediate: Walmart’s stock price dropped by 3 percent.

The way big business media like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times presented this move emphasized the business reasons why Walmart was investing a billion dollars in its employees.  Its stores are messy, which means it’s harder to find what you want to buy, and customer service is lousy.  Two years ago, it reduced staff to a bare minimum, which means most stores much of the time don’t have enough workers to do everything required.

Walmart is in a brick-and-mortar service business, the kind of enterprise not easy to outsource abroad, meaning that it tries to increase profits by increasing the exploitation of its workers. Walmart has been very aggressive in cutting hours, demanding flexibility and lowering benefits.

Its workers have pushed back, becoming part of the low-wage workers’ struggle for respect and for $15 an hour, a 40-hour week and a fixed schedule.

For the past five years, OUR Walmart, an association of Walmart workers,  has led protests at hundreds of Walmart stores.  OUR Walmart has gotten the support of labor unions and other progressive groups.  From time to time, groups other than OUR Walmart have also organized in support of Walmart workers.

Struggle tactics keep pressure on bosses

These protests use all sorts of tactics, from marching and chanting through store aisles, putting up leaflets inside stores, setting up picket lines outside with marching bands, as well as chants and speeches. Occasionally, protesters have blocked the streets outside stores and taken arrests.

OUR Walmart’s “Respect-the-Bump” campaign forced the company to change its pregnancy policy in early 2014. The campaign began in 2013 when a pregnant worker, a member of OUR Walmart in Maryland, was forced onto disability after her doctor told her that strenuous work was dangerous for herself and her unborn child. The company would not agree to change her work load.

Using the Facebook pages of OUR Walmart, a national campaign involving petitions and letters was organized and in early April 2014, Walmart announced it was changing its policy.

In June of 2011, nearly 100 Walmart workers representing thousands of members of OUR Walmart went to the company’s home office and presented a “Declaration of Respect” to Walmart executives.

It calls on Walmart to publicly commit to: “Listen to us, the Associates [what Walmart calls its workers]; have respect for the individual; recognize freedom of association and freedom of speech; fix the Open Door policy; pay a minimum of $13/hour and make full-time jobs available for Associates who want them; create dependable, predictable work schedules; provide affordable health care; provide every Associate with a policy manual, ensure equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination, and give every Associate equal opportunity to succeed and advance in his or her career; and provide wages and benefits that ensure that no Associate has to rely on government assistance.”

Walmart faces not just “bad employee morale” and a tightening labor market with the unemployment rate falling, as it claims. It confronts an active and organized resistance, which of course it won’t acknowledge. It has tried to bring labor law charges against the United Food and Commercial Workers for the support that that union gives to OUR Walmart.

A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but the financial consultant Demos estimates that if Walmart stopped buying back its stocks, it could afford to pay its workers a minimum of over $15 an hour.

Walmart workers won a victory with the raises the company just announced, but they have much further to go.