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Aaron Regunberg: How Walmart Workers Could Save the U.S. Economy

Friday, October 12, 2012


This is pretty exciting.

On Tuesday, the first ever retail workers strike against Walmart spread from Los Angeles, where Walmart employees first walked off the job last week, to Walmart stores in Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, Washington D.C., Chicago, Orlando, Kentucky, Missouri, and Minnesota. Strikers are protesting against the company’s attempts to “silence and retaliate against workers for speaking out for improvements on the job,” and are also objecting to their low pay and lack of benefits.

Colby Harris of Dallas was quoted in a recent article as saying, “I make $8.90 an hour and I've worked at Walmart for three years. Everyone at my store lives from check to check and borrows money from each other just to make it through the week." And activist workers announced Wednesday their plans to escalate these actions, with the threat of a major strike and protest on Black Friday, Walmart’s biggest shopping day of the year.

Although it’s just a beginning, I would argue that this development is worthy of our attention. In fact, I’d argue that it has in it a spark with the potential of significantly altering our economy for the better. Here’s why.

Walmart is huge. Really huge. As the single largest private employer in the world, Walmart employs 1.4 million Americans, which is one full percent of the entire U.S. workforce (approximately 140 million people). With so many employees, the labor policies Walmart utilizes have a real impact on the national economy.

The company’s size should not, however, be taken as reason to label Walmart a “job creator.” Let’s be clear—before Walmart came on the scene, people still bought clothes, and food, and toys, and household goods, and all the other things Walmart sells. And businesses still sold those goods; they just happened to be thousands of smaller, mostly locally-owned businesses that together employed countless Americans. Walmart did not create those 1.4 million jobs, but rather consolidated them under Walmart’s own low-wage, no-benefits labor structure.

This has not been a good development for the American economy. It is almost impossible for most Walmart employees to earn a living wage. As hard as they work (and I’d like to see the average white-collar businessman do a week on their feet in a Walmart store and claim it’s not extremely difficult labor), Walmart employees make poverty wages and simply cannot earn enough money to have the disposable income that a healthy American economy relies on. In fact, numerous studies have pointed to the billions of taxpayer dollars that Walmart stores indirectly rely on to subsidize their low-wage, no-benefits employment plans (because if Walmart isn’t providing any healthcare benefits, the employees who are eligible will turn to publicly-funded programs; if Walmart isn’t paying its workers enough for them to put food on the table, employees will turn to food stamps, etc.).

By tamping down wages and keeping a full one percent of American workers from adding to the consumer-feedback loop (wherein more consumption gives businesses a reason to hire which creates more consumers which leads to more hiring), Walmart is—perhaps more so than any other single firm—keeping the American economy from growing.

Worst of all, this is not a position Walmart needs to be in. With net profits of over $15.4 billion last year and a market value of over $200 billion, it’s pretty clear that Walmart could afford to pay decent wages to its employees. The six heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton alone are worth $89.5 billion, or as much as the bottom 41.5 percent of Americans combined. So I think they could stand to pay Colby Harris a bit more than the $8.90 an hour he earns after his three years of service to the company.

Walmart has been able to keep these terrible working conditions in place because of their rapid and often illegal anti-union activities, which have been extremely successful to date in keeping workers from organizing to fight for their rights. That’s why the spreading Walmart strikes are truly a big deal, not just for the 1.4 million Walmart employees in the U.S., but for the millions of American businesses that will benefit if each of those workers had a bit more income to spend, and the millions of American workers whom those businesses might hire if consumer demand were to pick up.

This is the only way we will fix the American economy: from the ground up. From American workers fighting for better jobs for themselves and their families. For all our sakes, then, let’s wish these Walmart employees well.


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