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by Lilly O'Donnell
Walmart is notorious for treating its workers terribly, but this year employees are fighting back by hitting the retailer where it hurts: on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Walkouts and protests at locations around the country have already started, and a strike is scheduled for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas shopping season.
Walmart employees have reported (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-16/wal-mart-workers-black-f...) that if they complain about their schedules, wages, or benefits, the company either docks their hours or fires them. But during the holiday shopping rush, Walmart will need all hands on deck, giving the striking employees the most leverage they’re going to get. Not to mention that, as if striking employees were ever good for business, a picket line is sure to put a damper on the holiday cheer that spurs big spending this time of year.
With 1.4 million U.S. workers, Walmart is the country’s largest private employer, and one of the top 20 largest companies in the world. Clearly a force to be reckoned with, Walmart has managed to quash previous attempts at organization among employees. This strike, backed by Making Change at Walmart (MCW - http://makingchangeatwalmart.org/), a coalition of Walmart employees, union leaders, and other supporters, will be the first in the company’s history.
“As the largest private employer in the United States and the world, Walmart is setting the standard for jobs,” reads MCW’s website. “That standard is so low that hundreds of thousands of its employees are living in poverty — even many that work full time.”
And they’re exactly right, this strike is about more than the wages and healthcare premiums of Walmart’s employees – though those are valid and urgent issues – it’s about what we mean when we talk about the need for jobs in this country. As we all know from the recent presidential race and debates, employment in this country is a major issue, and Americans aren’t likely to be confident in the economic recovery until the unemployment rate is back below 7%.
But when we say we want Americans put back to work, do we mean we want them working for wages so low that they still need public assistance to feed their children? Do we mean we want them working for a company that will fire them if they try to organize or express dissatisfaction?
I know that’s not what I mean when I hope for the American economy to recover.
Certainly, Walmart is as big and successful as it is because they know how to save money, and cheap labor is necessary for such a large operation to function. But there has to be a balance. Walmart, as a leader of American industry, has a responsibility to find a way to define what the future of the American labor force will look like.
Certainly, such a large company could find the money to pay its employees a living wage, to provide adequate healthcare at a premium that the living wage can accommodate. Imagine how much of a difference it could make for the economy at large if those 1.4 million Walmart employees could actually afford to spend money spurring the economy, instead of pinching every single penny and still just barely scraping by.
Lilly O'Donnell is a freelance writer, currently working on her first book.