by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
December 5, 2012
Part III: TAKING EXCEPTION TO EXCEPTIONALISM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Walmart doesn't want you to think it was a big deal, but the events of Black Friday - the walkouts, protests and civil disobedience actions that took place all across the United States on Nov. 23 - are the start of what could become one of the biggest victories for labor in American history.
That's because this was the first time that the nation's biggest employer - for the first time in its 50-year history - was targeted on the busiest shopping day of the year in a coordinated and widespread protest aimed at raising awareness of Walmart's shameful and immoral treatment of its employees.
Thousands of workers in more than 100 U.S. cities participated, which Walmart officials pooh-poohed as insignificant compared to the 1.3-million "associates" that didn't strike. But those who did walk out last week represented the first cracks in the facade of a corporation that is absolutely ruthless when it comes union-busting.
But the Black Friday protests were not about unionization. They were about the ability of employees to speak freely about the conditions they are working under, and doing so without the fear of losing their jobs. They were about calling attention to the lack of dignity and respect from a multi-billion corporation that treats its workers like serfs.
The average Walmart worker makes $8.81 per hour. Even if this average Walmart worker were to work full-time for 52 weeks with no vacations, he or she would earn about $18,300 a year before taxes - well below the poverty line for a family of four.
Unfortunately, one-third of Walmart's employees work less than 28 hours a week, the cut-off for receiving benefits such as health insurance. This is why the families of so many Walmart workers are receiving food stamps and Medicaid, because a Walmart job cannot support a family.
A company that earned $16 billion in profit last year - most of which went into the pockets of the heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton - can afford to pay its workers a living wage. But the U.S. retail sector has come to rely upon docile, underpaid, part-time labor to keep its profits up, while the wages for all workers keep dropping.
It doesn't have to be that way. A recent study by the think tank Demos found that if wages of all full-time workers at large U.S. retailers were increased to $25,000 a year - or roughly $4,000-$6,000 more than the current U.S. average - it would lift more than 700,000 out of poverty.
The math gets even better on this proposal. The cost of major retailers raising their workers' pay would be about $20.8 -billion, or about 1 percent of the sector's total annual sales of $2.17-trillion. For consumers, it would result in a price increase amounting to about 1 percent on Walmart products. And for the economy, increasing the purchasing power of lower-wage workers would generate up to $5 billion in additional retail sales. Undoubtedly, the higher wages would also mean that millions would have to give up food stamps, Medicaid, welfare and other government assistance, saving billions for our depleted U.S. Treasury.
Sadly, for a corporation that routinely cuts hours and bullies workers for speaking out about working conditions, paying workers a living wage is unthinkable. As long as threats and intimidation can happen without consequences, Walmart will make sure their workers believe that there is no alternative but to shut up and accept the abuse in exchange for a earning a meager wage that's not enough to survive on.
You can only push people so far before they reach their breaking point. You can only deny dignity and respect to people for so long until they decide that they can't take it anymore.
And this is the moment.
The Black Friday protests are the continuation of the debate that the Occupy movement started last fall, when it questioned the legitimacy of an economic system where all the gains flow to the top 1 percent, while the 99 percent are left to fight for crumbs.
And every single American who is in the 99 percent has a dog in this fight.
The good news is that the plight of Walmart workers has attracted the support of tens of thousands of community allies around the country, and social media is spreading this campaign for worker rights and human dignity far beyond Walmart's ability to control it. Walmart can fire striking workers and threaten them with lawsuits, but it's hard to stop people who are willing to risk it all in the name of justice.
After 50 years, Walmart is getting its first taste of people power. And they will learn that moral courage will trump lies, avarice and greed every time, and that determined people standing united for a just cause possess a power that is ultimately unstoppable.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.