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Labor On Labor: Walmart Workers' Organizing Efforts Good For Them and The Economy

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Nov 07 2011 at 1:04 PM
FALL 2011 >>

By Joseph T. Hansen

As the national unemployment rate still hovers at 9 percent and income disparity between the rich and the poor registers at more extreme levels than during the Great Depression, it is clear that we need to take bold steps to lift Americans out of poverty and rebuild the middle class.  While our country’s job crisis demands leadership from President Obama and Congress, they cannot revive the economy alone. Leadership is also needed from big players in the business community in order to create jobs with benefits that can support a family. Walmart—the world’s largest retailer—is a good place to start.     

Just this fall, Walmart announced its plan to roll back health care coverage for part-time workers and raise premiums for full-time employees. Walmart’s sheer scale in size means that its practices have an enormous impact on our country’s labor, business, and employment climate, and the company’s health care cuts will have repercussions throughout the retail industry—particularly for part-time workers. 

Already notorious for its treatment of employees and suppliers, use of public subsidies to supplement poverty-level wages, and negative impact on local economies and communities, Walmart’s drive to lower wages has influenced other retailers to do the same.  This low-wage business strategy has, in turn, led to depressed earnings across the retail and manufacturing sectors and pushed more and more workers out of the middle class.

For years, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has fought to change companies like Walmart and push them to be more responsible employers. We are more than familiar with the company’s tactics of isolating and retaliating against workers who want to unite as a group to address work-related problems.  But as so often happens in our resilient American workforce, employees are taking the lead in changing the Walmart culture themselves.

Last fall, the new employee association, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), was formed by and for hourly associates in Walmart stores to help change the way Walmart does business. Members are united around the following goals: respect, plus better schedules, wages and benefits for Walmart’s employees; success for the company; and outstanding service and value for the customer.  Walmart associates from across the country have joined the organization. 

In June, 100 representatives of OUR Walmart came to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and asked for a meeting with CEO Mike Duke.  They were told Duke was unavailable, and instead met with Senior Vice President of Global Labor Relations Karen Casey.  After the meeting, Casey promised that the employees’ concerns would be considered by senior management.  To date, the employees have heard nothing from the company.

Undaunted, nearly 100 members of OUR Walmart returned to Bentonville again in October and asked to meet with Duke for the second time in six months. The employees were in Arkansas to offer solutions for improving the company’s ailing U.S. store operations on the same day that Wall Street analysts and investors were assembled at the company’s annual investor conference.  Walmart refused the meeting.

“Walmart associates are the heart and soul of Walmart, which is why it’s very disappointing that Mike Duke continues to refuse to meet with us,” said Maggie Van Ness, a current Walmart associate from Lancaster, Calif. “Walmart’s failure to respect its workers is a big reason why the company is stuck in a rut. We have solutions to turn things around and the company ought to listen to us.”

At a separate meeting in October with Wall Street analysts, OUR Walmart members detailed how the company is caught in a vicious circle of worsening business conditions driven by the store’s low-cost strategies. Pressure to keep costs and prices down has led to pervasive understaffing. This short-handedness, combined with computerized management initiative schemes and a move to part-time workers enforced by the Walmart home office has, in turn, to led to long lines at the register and bare shelves as restocking lags.  The decrease in customer service has led to a decrease in sales, further increasing pressure to keep costs down—and the cycle repeats again.

Retail jobs are the jobs for the future; in fact, retail is one of the only sectors of our economy that is growing.  Much like the manufacturing sector in past eras, retail jobs will define how it is to work and live in America in the 21st century, and many of these jobs will be part-time.  It is critically important that retail employers compensate their workers with pay and benefits that allow them to live in the middle class

Walmart can and should lead the way in making sure that retail jobs are good jobs—the kind that come with good benefits and wages for all workers. If Walmart would listen to—and respect—its workers, it could not only reverse the downward trends that have plagued the company, it could also help to rebuild our country’s economy and strengthen America’s middle class.    

Joseph T. Hansen is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and chairperson of the union coaltion Change to Win.