Walmart Strike: Where Does the Labor Movement Go From Here

Few worker efforts to improve their lot have enthused me more in recent years than the current fight by Walmart workers for fair pay, workplace dignity, and fair treatment. Full disclosure: I spent nearly two decades as a labor journalist working for the AFL-CIO, local central labor bodies and the Service Employees International Union. The issues I wrote about were vital to every American: living wages, adequate retirements, decent working conditions, affordable health care. These were rights the American labor movement had fought tooth and nail to win, protect and enhance for American workers.

But even as I wrote of the crucial need to preserve these hard-won rights, I watched them erode as private-sector union strength dwindled and membership plunged. With worker strength declining, wages stagnated, real pensions went the way of the Dodo bird and more and more workers lost any say in how they were treated in the workplace.

To me, Walmart is a poster child for what non-union labor has become in America. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union reports that average wages at Walmart are just $8.81 an hour and not much above minimum wage in many states. That would come to $18,325 a year for a full-time worker, just 79% of the U.S. poverty level for a family of four. That assumes a 40 hour week though. Walmart doesn't disclose its percentage of full time workers, but according to the Huffington Post one retired Walmart store manager said that 70% of his employees were part-time, working 32 hours a week or less. That 32 hours a week is also below the minimum number of hours a Walmart employee must work just to get the bare bones health care plan the company offers.

Worse, according to a letter in Gannett's Cincinnati.com, Walmart's failure to pay a living wage or provide health care for its workers costs federal taxpayers some $3,000 a year, and adds to the public assistance burden of the states. Over 41.4% of Walmart's total workforce in Massachusetts used publicly subsidized health care, costing taxpayers $15.5 million in 2008. According to a 2004 study, public assistance used by Walmart associates cost California an estimated $86 million a year.

This crummy treatment apparently extends to those working for Walmart's contractors. LaborNotes reports that in Illinois, workers for Walmart contractor Roadlink filed suit in federal court this fall for non-payment of overtime, non-payment for all hours worked, and even pay less than the minimum wage. When they delivered a petition to a Roadlink manager onsite, he immediately fired several of the leaders and threatened everyone else, touching off a strike. One manager tried to drive a big forklift into the crowd of workers, Labor Notes reports.

Walmart, with 1.4 million employees, is the biggest private employer in the world. The American Prospect reports that Walmart earned $16 billion last year (it just reported a 9% increase in earnings in the third quarter of 2012, to $3.6 billion), much of which went to Walmart's shareholders — including the family of its founder, Sam Walton). I'd say, how Walmart treats its employees means something to the rest of us.

So when you ask why in the world should you support strikes against Walmart, given that it is ubiquitous in American cities with prices lower than almost any other retailer, you should take a look both at how the retail giant treats its workers and also the long-term effect its low wages and poor benefits have on the rest of working Americans.