Job Insecurity: New labor campaigns hope to turn low-wage work into a decent living.
When William Fletcher complains about the way he is treated at his job, people tell him to find a different one. Mr. Fletcher, 23, of El Monte, Calif., is an associate on the floor at a Walmart store in Southern California. Quitting Walmart is an option he has considered, but given the state of the economy, Mr. Fletcher says he is grateful to have the job. Besides, he says, for him and other Walmart employees who struggle with low wages, chaotic scheduling and insensitive management, the “sad reality is we love our jobs; we love working with the public.”
And why should working the Walmart retail floor not be the kind of job that pays enough for him to “have a home, have health insurance, have all the basic things in life?” Mr. Fletcher wonders. He finds it slightly un-American to think of quitting just because job conditions are not ideal. Besides, he points out, “ Walmart is the largest chain retailer in the world; they control the market. If I go someplace else, I’m going to have the same problems. “We’re going to fight to make this job better,” he says.
That’s what he began doing two years ago when he joined Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, a national effort to unite Walmart’s nonunion employees around demands for improved working conditions and wages at this U.S. corporate and retail giant. Mr. Fletcher is part of an emerging labor phenomenon of non-union activism directed against Walmart and other powerful, profitable U.S. corporations that maintain large, low-paid work forces. In 2012, unprecedented labor actions by nonunion workers included walkouts and in-store protests at fast-food outlets and Walmart stores and warehouses.
In Illinois the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago led demonstrations at retail and fast-food establishments along Michigan Avenue’s famed “Magnificent Mile” in a “Fight for 15,” a citywide minimum wage of $15. In New York, Fast Food Forward coordinated a walkout among hundreds of fast-food workers at a variety of chain restaurants last November. The organization’s aim is not unlike OUR Walmart’s, converting so-called McJobs into positions that offer a wage, schedule and benefits package that might allow workers to support themselves and their families.
With union organizing efforts crippled by a regulatory structure that has not kept up with changing corporate practices and the increasing popularity of so-called right-to-work laws, “the cards are stacked against workers these days in terms of labor law,” says Gerald J. Beyer, an associate professor of Christian social ethics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Nationally union membership is at historic lows; in 2012 unions represented just 6.6 percent of the private workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead of fighting against the current, these retail and fast-food workers are no longer primarily seeking to organize into union locals but are devising new ways to agitate for better conditions, borrowing tactics from community organizing and the civil rights movement, often in cooperation with traditional unions.
The OUR Walmart campaign, for example, enjoys the logistical support of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has for years tried unsuccessfully to penetrate Walmart’s anti-union ramparts. A Walmart spokesperson dismisses the OUR Walmart movement as the grumbling of a few disgruntled employees, amplified by the U.F.C.W., but the retail behemoth was concerned enough to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that attempted to halt an OUR Walmart demonstration timed for Thanksgiving and Walmart’s annual Black Friday shopping-palooza. In its complaint, the company alleged that the group is little more than a front for U.F.C.W. organizing. A union spokesperson acknowledges an ongoing role with the group but claims that, while the U.F.C.W. still provides communications support, OUR Walmart has established independence over the last year.
The company has been able to turn back various other union organizing efforts with management interventions that critics say make a mockery of labor laws meant to protect union organizing. In 2007 Human Rights Watch called Walmart “a case study in what is wrong with U.S. labor laws.” The organization’s researchers said among other misbehaving U.S. retailers, Walmart “stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus and actions.”
OUR Walmart’s Black Friday protests brought national attention to the retailer’s decision to jump-start the Christmas shopping season by opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, thereby torpedoing many of its employees’ family celebrations. Ultimately, few Walmart employees scheduled for work joined the protest, according to a Walmart corporate statement.
Karin Aubrey, an OUR Walmart member from Cape Canaveral, Fla., says that before Thanksgiving 12 or 13 associates from her store were willing to walk out, but as the holiday approached, the group began to lose its collective nerve. According to Ms. Aubrey, her co-workers were warned by managers that they “would be handing out pink slips” in the event of a walkout.
“Everybody was terrified,” she says. “No one came out.”
“The reality is that there are only a handful of associates, at a handful of stores, scattered across the country that are participating in these U.F.C.W. made-for-TV events,” Kory Lundberg, Walmart’s director of National Media Relations, wrote in an e-mail message. “Most of the numbers of people the U.F.C.W. claims at their events aren’t even Walmart workers. They are union representatives and other union members.”
“We’re not union, and we’re not necessarily looking to be union,” counters Ms. Aubrey. Her aims are not quite that ambitious. A little more heft to her paycheck would suit her just fine.
Ms. Aubrey, 55, has been working for Walmart off and on for years. She earns $10.10 an hour and can barely afford her rent. “I am clearing less than $250 a week; I have been on food stamps since they cut my hours,” she complains. “They give you a measly 40 cent raise each year, then they increase health care costs or something else and take it all back.” According to Ms. Aubrey, only the department managers at her store are able to get full-time hours and “some of the old-time employees.”
She says, “The rest of us are part-timers. There’s a lot of single moms in my store and many of them, because of the part-time hours, get government assistance. There’s not only a lot of them on food stamps, there is a lot of them that qualify for Medicaid.”
It is not exactly news that fast-food and retail workers are not being offered a living wage; but the willingness of such workers to agitate for better conditions without the collective cover offered by a union is notable. Joseph A. McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, called the OUR Walmart campaign a “significant development” within the contemporary labor movement.
Professor McCartin explains that efforts to improve conditions at Walmart could have an important ripple effect. With 1.3 million “associates,” the company’s term for non-management retail employees, “ Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States,” says Mr. McCartin. “They’re the trendsetter.” Walmart’s decisions set standards not only for other major retail chains, but for the treatment of entry-level employees across employment sectors.
“Movements that effect changes go after the biggest players first,” says Mr. Beyer. He speculates that efforts like OUR Walmart could provide the “spark” that ignites a broader labor renewal.
The significance of the movement transcends any specific gains achieved at Walmart. While other employment sectors continue a decline, significantly reducing the number of jobs that offer a chance at a middle-class lifestyle, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the retail sector will offer the second-largest source of new jobs in the United States over the next 10 years. The nature of that growth so far is not encouraging. Since 2006, the bureau reports, the retail and wholesale sector cut one million full-time jobs and added more than 500,000 part-time positions.
Many of the employees of some of the nation’s most profitable corporations—Walmart, McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Home Depot—earn wages at or near state and federal minimums. The federal per-hour standard, currently at $7.25 (19 states have higher minimums, ranging up to Washington State’s $9.19), can only be adjusted by an act of Congress. As a result, the federal wage floor has not kept pace with the rising cost of living, and its value has declined more than 30 percent since its peak in 1968, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project.
A minimum wage job, as a result, is essentially a sure path to poverty. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical retail salesperson earns just $21,000 per year. Demos, a liberal New York-based public policy research center, estimates that establishing a minimum retail annual wage of $25,000 a year would lift more than 1.5 million retail workers and their families out of poverty or near-poverty.
After four years at Walmart, Mr. Fletcher earns just over $10 an hour. He does not have one of the coveted full-time schedules. He cannot afford the company’s health insurance plan. Mr. Fletcher alleges that Walmart deliberately keeps employees like him trapped in a part-time, low-wage limbo, unable to qualify for or afford the company’s health insurance, unable to get by on their weekly take-home.
“We have hard data that tells a completely different story than what a few [OUR Walmart] associates may think,” counters Mr. Lundberg. “We have 250,000 associates that have worked for the company for more than 10 years; we promoted 165,000 hourly associates last year; our turnover rate [37 percent] is lower than the retail industry average [44 percent], nearly 75 percent of our store management teams started out in hourly positions, and 20 percent of the people we hired last year were rehires—meaning they worked for Walmart, decided to leave and concluded they were getting a better deal at Walmart so they came back.
“The fact is,” says Mr. Lundberg, “our pay and benefits plans are as good or better than our retail competitors, including those that are unionized. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to hire people and staff our stores. Last year alone, we received five million job applications.”
But internal Walmart documents leaked to the press in recent years, including a memo from November 2012 that detailed Walmart’s parsimonious compensation plan, suggest Mr. Fletcher’s experience is not unique. Mr. Lundberg is correct, however, that Walmart wages compare favorably with other retail chains. Walmart reports an average wage among associates of $12.50, a figure Mr. Fletcher says is unheard of among the people he works with.
IBISWorld, a marketing research firm, reports Walmart’s average wage is just under $9 an hour, exceeding the rates paid at Target and Kohl’s but below other big-box retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s and substantially below the $17 an hour paid at Costco. And Mr. Lundberg may claim union parity, but, according to the U.F.C.W., union retail workers can expect to earn 20 to 30 percent more than their nonunionized peers.
The low pay may keep costs low for Walmart’s customers, but U.S. consumers make up the difference indirectly. A lot of his fellow workers, Mr. Fletcher reports, qualify for a number of government support programs, including supplemental nutritional programs, housing assistance and earned income tax credits. “If you plan on getting by on a Walmart salary,” he says, “you have to know how to do so on public assistance.”
The reliance of Walmart and other retail workers on government aid, particularly Medicaid, has been well documented. And more Walmart workers are likely to be added to Medicaid rolls in 2013. This year, as Walmart celebrates its 50th anniversary, the company further reduced eligibility for health insurance for employees who work more than 30 hours a week.
Mr. Fletcher thinks U.S. taxpayers would be “shocked” to learn “how much they’re supporting Walmart workers,” especially considering the company’s outsized annual profits. In 2011 Walmart reported a net profit of $16 billion on $447 billion in revenue, making it number two on Fortune 500 in terms of revenue, just behind Exxon, and number 10 in net profitability. The lion’s share of Walmart’s income goes directly into the hands of the company’s largest shareholders, the Walton family, holders of 48 percent of Walmart stock and the richest family on earth, with over $107 billion in net worth.
Mr. Beyer, the Saint Joseph’s University professor, worries that a term like solidarity, “bandied about” too frequently, is in danger of losing its import. “We need to do a better job educating young people about solidarity and what it is” in practice, he says.
“Our role as consumers is another side to this,” he says, a role that Catholics should take special care evaluating. There is nothing in U.S. law that requires a minimum wage to be a living wage, as advocates have demanded. But within the tradition of Catholic social teaching, more than a century in the making, the moral obligation of a just wage—that is, a wage suitable to protect human dignity, provide for basic needs, recreation and even family savings—has been well established. “We as Catholics could start by looking at our own campuses and institutions,” says Mr. Beyer, where low pay, poor benefits and confrontational management-worker relationships have sometimes been the source of scandal.
And as individual consumers, Catholics and people of good faith might consider an examination of conscience as an essential part of an everyday shopping list. With so many new U.S. workers—even college graduates with huge education debts—downscaled to minimum-wage work, the stakes are high as the nation confronts its low-wage future at retail checkout counters. Given the current state of the economy, Mr. Beyer acknowledges that shopping has become no easy ethical calculus for many who are seeking to stretch family budgets. Even if it, in some respects, may represent “cooperation with evil,” Mr. Beyer admits that in today’s economy “close to 50 million [U.S. consumers] need to find the cheapest goods they possibly can.”
Many find them at Walmart.