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The Importance of the Walmart Strikes

Walmart Warehouse Workers for Justice, Oct. 1 (photo: peoplesworld / flickr)

Bryce Covert has a helpful primer for why we should pay attention to these wildcat strikes carried out by a non-union coalition of Walmart associates. It does threaten to upend the status quo for labor relations in an age that heralds a rising service sector and weakened union density.

While not a union making formal demands, the group behind the strikes, OUR Walmart, presented a “Declaration of Respect” to the company in June. It called for, among other things, a minimum of $13 per hour, full-time jobs for those who want them, predictable work schedules, affordable healthcare and wages and benefits that don’t mean employees have to turn to government assistance to fill in the holes. Walmart says the average hourly wage for its full-time workers across the country is $12.40, but an IBISWorld report put that figure at $8.81, barely above the minimum wage. And studies have shown that Walmart workers are more likely than others in the industry to rely on government benefits […]

This category of work is the fastest growing post-recession. In a recent report, the National Employment Law Project classified jobs that pay a median hourly wage of $7.69 to $13.83—easily Walmart territory, no matter whose average wage figure you listen to—as low-wage jobs. The report found that it’s these very jobs that are seeing the most robust rebound: they grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage and high-wage work. The low-wage occupation with the highest growth was, you guessed it, retail.

Low-wage retail jobs have been the source of the labor “recovery,” such as it is. And our system gives so much leverage to giant corporations like Walmart that it becomes very difficult for workers to collectively use their power for better pay and working conditions. There’s no question that a better labor market would help their cause markedly, giving them the flexibility to quit jobs offering low pay with the knowledge that a better one lurks just up the street. But Walmart employs 1% of the total US workforce (that’s not a typo). This massive size enables them to set a wage, hour, benefit and working condition standard in a way that no other employer can. Furthermore, as stories about a “new normal” for unemployment continue to pop up, as theories about structural unemployment predominate, the idea that we will see a labor market favorable to workers in the near future is remote. This is the world these workers live in right now. And they need to use all their tools to force a better situation for themselves.

This interview with Nelson Lichtenstein gives more insight into the form of this worker uprising: through a non-union coalition:

OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart] is a kind of return to labor formations of the 1930s. It’s an association–they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone. They’re a minority that is willing to stick their necks out.

It’s a demonstration strike. For every one worker who actually goes outside and holds a picket sign, you can be sure that 25 workers inside the store or in other stores feel the same way but are afraid to be publicly identified […]

If, over the next several months, Walmart does not systematically retaliate against these striking workers, it will show other workers that they can stick their necks out. It will embolden other workers to do the same thing. These actions could really be the tip of the iceberg.

Walmart has weathered this in the past. When a sliver of workers organized a union at a store in Quebec, Walmart shut down the whole store rather than deal with the union. But this is a less predictable situation, which may carry a less predictable outcome. Walmart doesn’t know when the strikes are coming or what form it will take or what part of the chain – the retail store, the supplier, the warehouse – will see the action. The bad publicity may be enough for some manner of reform here.

CommunityThe Bullpen

The Importance of the Walmart Strikes

Bryce Covert has a helpful primer for why we should pay attention to these wildcat strikes carried out by a non-union coalition of Walmart associates. It does threaten to upend the status quo for labor relations in an age that heralds a rising service sector and weakened union density.

While not a union making formal demands, the group behind the strikes, OUR Walmart, presented a “Declaration of Respect” to the company in June. It called for, among other things, a minimum of $13 per hour, full-time jobs for those who want them, predictable work schedules, affordable healthcare and wages and benefits that don’t mean employees have to turn to government assistance to fill in the holes. Walmart says the average hourly wage for its full-time workers across the country is $12.40, but an IBISWorld report put that figure at $8.81, barely above the minimum wage. And studies have shown that Walmart workers are more likely than others in the industry to rely on government benefits […]

This category of work is the fastest growing post-recession. In a recent report, the National Employment Law Project classified jobs that pay a median hourly wage of $7.69 to $13.83—easily Walmart territory, no matter whose average wage figure you listen to—as low-wage jobs. The report found that it’s these very jobs that are seeing the most robust rebound: they grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage and high-wage work. The low-wage occupation with the highest growth was, you guessed it, retail.

Low-wage retail jobs have been the source of the labor “recovery,” such as it is. And our system gives so much leverage to giant corporations like Walmart that it becomes very difficult for workers to collectively use their power for better pay and working conditions. There’s no question that a better labor market would help their cause markedly, giving them the flexibility to quit jobs offering low pay with the knowledge that a better one lurks just up the street. But Walmart employs 1% of the total US workforce (that’s not a typo). This massive size enables them to set a wage, hour, benefit and working condition standard in a way that no other employer can. Furthermore, as stories about a “new normal” for unemployment continue to pop up, as theories about structural unemployment predominate, the idea that we will see a labor market favorable to workers in the near future is remote. This is the world these workers live in right now. And they need to use all their tools to force a better situation for themselves.

This interview with Nelson Lichtenstein gives more insight into the form of this worker uprising: through a non-union coalition:

OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart] is a kind of return to labor formations of the 1930s. It’s an association–they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone. They’re a minority that is willing to stick their necks out.

It’s a demonstration strike. For every one worker who actually goes outside and holds a picket sign, you can be sure that 25 workers inside the store or in other stores feel the same way but are afraid to be publicly identified […]

If, over the next several months, Walmart does not systematically retaliate against these striking workers, it will show other workers that they can stick their necks out. It will embolden other workers to do the same thing. These actions could really be the tip of the iceberg.

Walmart has weathered this in the past. When a sliver of workers organized a union at a store in Quebec, Walmart shut down the whole store rather than deal with the union. But this is a less predictable situation, which may carry a less predictable outcome. Walmart doesn’t know when the strikes are coming or what form it will take or what part of the chain – the retail store, the supplier, the warehouse – will see the action. The bad publicity may be enough for some manner of reform here.

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David Dayen

David Dayen