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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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Colby Harris of Dallas has worked at Walmart for 3 years and is making only $8.90 per hour. She’s surprised at this? Yeah, she would be surprised, that’s why she works at Walmart.

I don’t shop at Walmart and could care less what they pay their employees. But so long as they pay at least minimum wage, there’s no beef here. Move along. If you don’t like the wages, then go work somewhere else.

Our government has created a false sense of entitlement in people, just for being a person. They think that just because they’ve been there 3 years, they’re entitled to earn more. Life doesn’t work that way, only government funded programs such as welfare work that way.

This country was based on the idea, if you want something, you have to go out and EARN it. Get an education and get a better job. Get a second job. Do what you have to do, to get ahead in life. Don’t bitch and complain because Walmart doesn’t pay you enough. It’s friggin Walmart!!!!!!

Comment #1 by pearl fanch on 2012 10 12

Retail work has been historically low paying with the vast majority of workers part timers with few if any benefits. Employees know this going in to the job. What big box retailer can claim they pay a "living wage" to their workers? This goes for Stop and Shop (unionized), JC Penny, Target, the list goes on. Years ago there were jobs for the marginally educated/unskilled workers in textiles and jewelry. The high cost of labor and high taxes caused that work to move. Today, too many those workers have to settle for retail. Thats how the cookie crumbles.

Comment #2 by David Beagle on 2012 10 12

I think its worth noting that wal-mart stock hit its historic high last week. It also pays a $1.59 dividend. A nice hedge stock against a bear market.

Comment #3 by george pratt on 2012 10 12

Mr. Regunberg would consider that blood money George.

Comment #4 by David Beagle on 2012 10 12

First of all , I remember when I was young and had a crappy job that didn't pay well,I quit and found a better paying one,if you dont like how much your getting paid or your overall job,you quit and find a better one or you try to better yourself,by educating yourself.

Me personally I am not a fan of Walmart, I prefer going to Target .Walmart is in business to make money,thats why people start businesses to make money.Walmart pays cheap because its what we call unskilled labor,you wouldn't expect to ring a cash register and make 15 bucks an hr ,it would be nice but thats not the way it works. I am sure Walmart can pay more,but will that drive up costs in the stores? Maybe ,maybe not,either way its Walmarts choice to hold on to their billions to do whatever they want with ,maybe even build more stores and have more new hires.

As far as the subsides go,all those big corporations get them, McDonalds,Burger king etc. I dont agree with the subsides ,if they are making billions then they dont need tax payer subsidies.If this guy harris wants more money, find a better paying job,or move up the ladder into a higher paying position.Maybe he doesnt like the fact that Walmart has billions of dollars and is paying cheap wages,well thats Walmarts choice,they are paying what the law says and in some cases more. Look at the federal minium wage, its $7.25 an hr., but most states have higher minium wages and therefore the person gets the higher wage by law.

Comment #5 by anthony sionni on 2012 10 12

who owns walmart??

mutual funds, owned by 401k plans , that are owned by wage earners.

if you cut the earnings the value drops and the 401ks of wage earners drops....

Comment #6 by jon paycheck on 2012 10 12

My summer job in college I worked in a warehouse with a lot of immigrants. When there english language skills got good enough the good ones would leave to go work at Pepsi or one of the other large companies that paid better. Its simple, improve your skills, improve your wage.

Comment #7 by george pratt on 2012 10 12

If Walmart workers want to duke it out with their employer, go for it. I'd say they're not too smart with their timing, though.

If they wanted to really screw Walmart, they'd time their action like a teachers union holding school children hostage: They'd walk out the DAY BEFORE Black Friday.

In the long run they should know, however, that they can be very easily replaced.

Comment #8 by Art West on 2012 10 12

Unionizing Walmart is going to save our economy How? By raising the prices of the low-cost goods that they sell at Walmart? How does this help? I know a liberal who is a big Regunberg fan, and he shops at Walmart because he wants to save money. He won't be happy when I show him this.

Comment #9 by Michael Trenn on 2012 10 12

Here's a thought for the Wal-Mart workers that want to unionize, Wal-Mart stock (WMT) is trading @ $77.15.
So everyone buy a share a month. In one year the 1.4 million employees of will own 16,800,000 shares of Wal-Mart.
This means you will be part owner the company and will collect dividends and vote on certain company issues. This will give you power in the Wal-Mart company and not give power to a union boss.

Comment #10 by Wuggly Ump on 2012 10 16

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