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Who's Really to Blame for the Wal-Mart Strikes? The American Consumer

Labor

The Wal-Mart workers threatening to walk off the job on Black Friday aren't just fighting their employer. They're fighting a whole system. Forget the stampeding shoppers, the half-priced waffle irons, or the pepper spray wielding wackos: barring a federal intervention, the main event this Black Friday could turn out to be a showdown between organized labor and its arch corporate nemesis, Wal-Mart.

Who's Really to Blame for the Wal-Mart Strikes? The American Consumer

Jordan Weissmann
The Atlantic
Nov 22, 2012

The Wal-Mart workers threatening to walk off the job on Black Friday aren't just fighting their employer. They're fighting a whole system.

Forget the stampeding shoppers, the half-priced waffle irons, or the pepper spray wielding wackos: barring a federal intervention, the main event this Black Friday could turn out to be a showdown between organized labor and its arch corporate nemesis, Wal-Mart.

After organizing the first retail workers' strikes in the company's 50-year history last month, a union-backed group has promised to lead work stoppages and demonstrations at Wal-Mart stores around the country this holiday weekend in protest of its famously aggressive labor practices. Nobody truly knows how big the turnout will be, or if even more than a handful of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million U.S. employees will actually walk off the job. We might witness something historic, or we might witness a sideshow that shoppers ignore while brawling for bargains. Either way, the threat has made Wal-Mart nervous enough to ask the National Labor Relations Board for an injunction stopping the protests. Should they go on, they will be a test of whether, after years of failing to organize the country's largest employer, labor groups still have the wherewithal to take it on.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of this simply as a clash over one company. Rather, it's symptomatic of forces Wal-Mart helped set in motion and now shape our economy in fundamental way. It's about big box retail's refusal to pay a decent wage. It's about the way we've stacked the deck against unions. And it's about the choices we make as consumers.

Wal-Mart's Bad, But the Competition Isn't Much Better

As Harold Meyerson noted recently in The American Prospect, whereas Ford and General Motors paid their factory workers enough to buy the cars they built, Wal-Mart rose up by paying "its workers so little they had to shop at discount stores like Wal-Mart."

But by now, that low-price, low-wage model has become the industry standard among discount retailers, or at least close to it. The median retail worker earns $14.42 an hour, but at big box chains, the pay is significantly lower (the notable exception being Costco, which commendably pays its employees a living wage). Walmart, for instance, says it pays full time sales associates $11.75 an hour on average. But independent analysis peg the figure much lower, closer to $9. According to IBISWorld, that puts it a bit behind companies like Home Depot and Lowes, but ahead of its nearest competitor, Target, which has managed to put a more fashionable face on the same abysmal pay for its workers.

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