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Aaron Regunberg: Walmart Organizing Could Represent New Economic Era

Saturday, November 24, 2012

 

Yesterday, Americans joined together to protest and picket at over 1,000 Walmart locations across the country in support of the rights of Walmart associates and warehouse workers, many of whom braved their employers’ explicit threats of retaliation to walk out of work on the retail giant’s biggest day of the year.

Although Walmart’s PR machine has been working overtime since Thursday night to minimize the importance of these actions, and has pointed out that company sales did not suffer as a result of the protests, a look at reports of the day’s events shows how significant yesterday’s cross-country protests really were. Some of the actions were huge, like the 1,500 protesters who converged on a Walmart store in Paramount, California, where several Walmart associates were arrested for civil disobedience. Some were on the smaller side—I was visiting my grandparents in the Hudson Valley for Thanksgiving, and we participated in a rally of around 50 folks at a Walmart in Fishkill, New York (hardly a hotbed of progressive activism). And while the thousands of actions represented a first step rather than an end to the campaign to win dignity and economic justice for the 1.4 million low-wage Walmart workers, the sheer scope of this nationwide phenomenon is difficult to overstate.

Something else that cannot be overstated is that the Walmart organizing campaign is a good thing for America. I think most people intuitively understand this. Even my cousin’s conservative husband (whose first words during our family’s Thanksgiving dinner were, “That New York Times is a Communist paper”) announced that the mistreatment of Walmart employees he’d witnessed while making deliveries during his trucking career made him agree that Walmart workers needed a union. And at the Fishkill Walmart action, there were a whole lot of cars driving by that showed their support for the rally by honking their horns and giving the thumbs up.

But every once in a while someone would open their window and yell “Get a job!” or one of those other things that angry uninformed people sometimes yell at groups of citizens publicly trying to make a difference. Rush Limbaugh went on a rant about Walmart workers’ “assault on capitalism,” and I am sure there are a lot of other people out there who reacted with anger upon hearing about the Black Friday protests.

That’s why it is so important to reiterate that the Walmart organizing campaign is a good thing for America.

After all, who is helped by Walmart workers’ poverty wages? Consumers? Hardly. A study released this year found that if Walmart were to pay its workers a closer-to-living wage of at least $12 per hour and pass the entirety of these costs onto consumers, the average Walmart customer would pay just 46 cents more per shopping trip, or around 12 extra dollars each year. Consumers would barely notice.

At the same time, studies have found that employees of Walmart are forced to utilize government assistance programs more than those at other large retail companies, meaning all of us taxpayers who are subsidizing Walmart’s poverty wages have much to gain from an improvement in their employee policies. Every time Walmart employees are forced to rely on the emergency room because they can’t afford the company’s stingy health insurance plans, that money comes out of your pocket. Every time Walmart workers need to go on food stamps because they can’t buy the food they need to survive even as they work full time, Walmart is passing that cost on to you and me. And all of this so that the six Walton heirs—who already own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of our country combined—can make a little bit more in profits.

Why would any rational American support this state of affairs? Why would anyone be against giving 1.4 million hardworking Americans the opportunity to earn a living wage from their toil—a living wage that could then be recycled through our economy, creating more demand and more jobs? The efforts of Walmart associates to win the rights they deserve at work are good for them, certainly, but they’re also good for all of us and for the U.S. economy as a whole. So next time you happen to hear about an upcoming Walmart action, consider taking part yourself, because it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the self-interested thing to do, as well.

 

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