The historic strike by employees of America’s biggest private employer may not have kept Wal-Mart from profiting from Black Friday, but that doesn’t mean it was a failure. The protest sparked a conversation about labor in America that needs to be had.
In a statement released early Friday morning, Wal-Mart reported its most successful Black Friday ever. The statement seems to be designed to downplay the Black Friday protests, thanking associates for contributing to the success and claiming that, “this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year.”
So this wasn’t a David and Goliath story. But I don’t think that a serious impact on Black Friday shopping was ever a real goal of the protests. The point was to let Wal-Mart, and the world, know that workers are fed up with working full time and still living in poverty — to start a conversation in this country about how to protect the working poor.
Throughout the lead-up to and discussion of Friday’s Wal-Mart employee walkout, I saw several people take the position that if employees don’t like the wages at Wal-Mart, they should just quit and let someone else take their job — that if the market couldn’t support jobs at these wages, they wouldn’t exist (many of them pundits here on PolicyMic).
But the market doesn’t support these wages — government assistance does.
A lot of the same people who argue against striking and in favor of letting big business do whatever it takes to protect profit margins are the same people who are against monetary government assistance, and want people to fend for themselves. No strikes, no welfare. But, guess what, if Wal-Mart and other large employers of unskilled workers don’t raise their wages and benefits, taxpayer money will continue to make up the difference.
In 2004, a year in which Wal-Mart reported $9.1 billion in profits; the retailer's California employees collected $86 million in public assistance, Mother Jones reported.
I would think that small government libertarians would balk at such a drain on taxpayer dollars. But the only way to get Wal-Mart workers off of public assistance is for the retailer to take care of its own, and pay a wage that is sufficient to live on.
Unskilled workers are a large part of the American work force, working jobs like checkout at Wal-Mart. If that’s what our workforce looks like, the economy can’t be expected to recover until workers are making enough to feed their families, let alone put money back into the economy and invest in growth. And proponents of reducing government spending need to see recipients of assistance not as a bunch of lazy moochers, but as people who work and still can’t make ends meet. If Wal-Mart raised their wages, employees would be able to support their families and taxpayers wouldn’t have to make up the difference — no strikes and no welfare.
And no, this wouldn’t mean that Wal-Mart would have to raise their “everyday low prices.” Their profit margins are huge. If the business model doesn’t work as it is now — and it doesn’t if workers are being paid less than the cost of living — the money to cover the difference should come from the company’s profits, not out of taxpayers’ pockets.