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Wal-Mart and the feminization of labor

Published Mar 23, 2005 3:52 PM

From a talk by Sharon Eolis at the Nov. 13-14 National Fightback Conference.

Imagine you are a working woman who is paid $8 per hour. You have no health insurance for your family. This is the condition for thousands of Wal-Mart employees. Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the U.S.

This multi-billion-dollar company has wiped out main street merchants in towns and cities across the country by lowering prices and driving down wages for workers in the retail industry. This company has been miserly and unscrupulous in its manipulation to keep workers unorganized and uninsured.

Management sets up eligibility requirements for entering the health plan, but the workers often are not informed. Premi ums are so high that workers can’t pay them with Wal-Mart wages: as high as $264 per month, equal to four days’ pay.

In Georgia, officials found that 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees were enrolled in state-funded health programs at an annual cost of $10 million. In Cali for nia it costs the state health program $32 million per year to aid the children of Wal-Mart workers.

In 2004 California had a ballot referendum demanding that companies like Wal-Mart pay for health insurance or contribute to a state insurance pool. Wal-Mart spent $500,000 to stop this measure. Despite a major effort by health-care workers, seniors and community organizations, the measure was defeated on Election Day.

Currently more than a million former and current women employees have filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart.

Women workers fought and won

For more than a century women have worked in industry in the U.S. Long before World War II, women were employed in large numbers in the textile industry, where the working conditions were abominable and wages were almost at a starvation level.

In response to these conditions, thousands of working women took to the streets of New York City during the early 1900s. These strikes were instrumental in leading the Socialist International to proclaim International Women’s Day in 1910.

Protective legislation was almost nonexistent in sweatshops that employed women. Over 140 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York because the bosses had locked the exits leading to the fire escapes.

Children too were exploited in this period. The wages of a whole family were needed to prevent starvation. It took the tumultuous struggles of the 1930s to force business to accept the Fair Labor Stan dards Act of 1938, which set a minimum age of 16 for workers in most industries. Unemployed marches and strikes won unemployment insurance, Social Security and welfare benefits.

The labor shortage of World War II opened the door to higher-paying industrial jobs for women. The war enhanced the development of the capitalist economy. To bring and keep women in the factories, daycare centers were opened.

By 1948 women made up 32 percent of the labor force. Of course, at the end of the war, there was a major propaganda campaign to push women out of the factories and back to the home.

During the war wages were frozen. Com panies offered health benefits in lieu of higher wages. This became a national tradition and labor unions have fought hard to keep health benefits.

In the past 20 years health care has been a major issue in contract negotiations and has led to many strikes. In non-union jobs, especially in the service sector, it has been more difficult for workers to win and keep health insurance.

Wal-Mart represents a classic example of this disenfranchisement.

As high-tech capitalist production has marched forward, more women have had to work outside the home. Most of their jobs are in the lower-paid service industries, which also employ men and women immigrants and people of color.

High technology in industry has been responsible for the elimination of jobs for thousands of skilled workers—mostly men. By the 1980s, white men no longer made up the majority of the workforce.

This led to the spread of racist and chauvinist views that women and nationally oppressed workers have taken jobs away from white men. In fact, those jobs have disappeared due to the workings of the cut-throat capitalist market worldwide.

By the mid-1980s women made up 44 percent of the workforce, but the jobs they held were generally so low paying that more and more women and children began to live below the poverty line, as is true now.

The scientific technological revolution is responsible for the pauperization of the workforce under capitalism. But the leveling down of all workers’ living standards also creates a new basis for united action among workers of all nationalities, women and men, to organize and get rid of capitalist wage-slavery forever.