Courageous Walmart workers have been striking and committing civil disobedience around the country.
“They want to raise wages,” says Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, “which is what could happen if the public responds. Companies have been frantically painting themselves green to attract environmentally conscious customers. Employers might discover, to paraphrase the old McDonald’s slogan, that their workers deserve a break today if consumers (who are also workers themselves) started pressuring them to be more employee-friendly.”
A group called the Coalition for Social and Environmental Responsibility in Boulder (CSERB) wants to build such a consumers’ movement. What if progressive Boulderites started going around to businesses asking questions such as “Do you pay a living wage? How about adequate health insurance? Paid sick leave? Vacation time?”
Economic justice activism isn’t easy in Colorado. Unions are rather weak. We can’t mandate a living wage in Boulder because the state legislature passed a law prohibiting cities from doing that (in response to a Denver campaign). We can’t have rent control because a state law prohibits that (in response to a 1970s Boulder campaign I was involved in).
At the moment, CSERB is focusing on Walmart. It held an “Unwelcome Party” at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market in October and urged a boycott of the store. They are planning a protest on Black Friday, Nov. 29, to coincide with a wave of strikes.
There are many reasons to focus on Walmart. The company is the largest private employer on the planet (bigger than Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Sears, Costco and K-Mart combined). It employs nearly one out of every 100 U.S. workers. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein compares the Walmart model of employment today to that of General Motors in the mid-20th century, both of which he calls “template” firms (which set the standard that other firms have to follow if they hope to compete).
“When you had a job at General Motors, it was a lifetime job,” he says. “It was a high-wage job, and there were often many, many benefits attached to it.”
Lichtenstein says the Walmart model of employment, based on low wages, low skills, low benefits and rapid job turnover, is becoming the template for American firms to follow.
Of course, General Motors didn’t provide good pay and benefits because it was beneficent and charitable but because the workers formed a union and fought fierce battles with the company in the 1930s.
Walmart became the template firm in the 1970s after the U.S. experienced competition from Europe and Japan. Unionized companies like General Motors moved their plants to the southern U.S. and poor Third World nations where they could get a cheaper and more docile workforce. The corporate elite began a decades-long propaganda campaign to blame the economy’s troubles on American workers. Wages and benefits were too high. “Some people will have to do with less,” Business Week editorialized in the 1970s. “Yet it will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.”
Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker bluntly stated, “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.” That happened. The living standard of a majority of Americans has steadily declined since 1974.
Walmart was perfectly positioned to benefit, coming out of the antiunion rural South where even a minimum-wage job was considered a step up from poverty by people leaving the farms. Now the company is everywhere.
When a Walmart arrives in a community, it either drives out the higher-wage employers or compels them to lower their pay. A study by economist David Neumark shows that eight years after Walmart comes into a county, it drives down wages for all (not just retail) workers until they are 2.5 percent to 4.8 percent below wages in equivalent counties with no Walmarts.
The protests continue. As a result, Walmart has illegally disciplined nearly 80 workers, including firing 20 worker-leaders.
More than 100 Unfair Labor Practice charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Walmart.
It is inspiring that Walmart workers are standing up for their rights and trying to transform their daily lives. Let’s stand with them. It’s our fight too.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.