On Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, Wal-Mart workers across the country are planning a strike for "consistent hours, better pay, and simple respect" in an action unprecedented in the 50-year history of the country's largest employer.
In response, the company, which has repeatedly violated its employees' labor rights over the past two decades, has filed charges against the United Food and Commercial Workers with the National Labor Relations Board.
A clear indication of the company's concern about Friday's planned strike the latest in a series of worker protests dating back to late September the action has been widely viewed as the company's warning shot to employees who are thinking of striking. Senior executives in Bentonville, Ark., insist that the company offers competitive wages and opportunities for advancement, and that the protests are simply the actions of a few disgruntled employees, spurred on by the UFCW.
But the company's mask is now slipping when it comes to pay and respect. Last week, journalists obtained a copy of Wal-Mart's "Field Non-Exempt Associate Pay Plan" for 2013. The "Pay Plan" is one of the first internal documents made public that clearly contradicts Wal-Mart's misinformation on compensation. It details Wal-Mart's rigid pay structure for hourly employees, and makes clear why it is so difficult for associates to earn more than poverty-level wages.
Despite what the company claims about paying competitive wages, the reality is that almost half of Wal-Mart's associates make less than $10 an hour, with many of them relying on public assistance as well as their wages to support their families. Average Wal-Mart employees make just $8.81 per hour, with many of those making more than $10 an hour having worked for the retail giant for a decade or longer.
The protesting workers want more full-time jobs Wal-Mart keeps many workers who want full-time work on part-time schedules and denies health benefits to those working less than 24 hours per week and an end to employer retaliation for trying to form a union. They also want the company to pay at least $13 per hour and expand access to health care. But Wal-Mart employees are a long way from achieving these basic demands.
Despite forecasting $13.5 billion in capital expenditures, the company has announced plans to increase the costs of employees' health premiums by up to one-third in 2013.
The stakes in the Wal-Mart strike could not be higher. Wal-Mart is not only the country's largest private- sector employer with 1.4 million employees and 4,500 stores nationwide. It is the country's largest private- sector employer of women, African Americans and Latinos. And it is the employer with the nation's largest number of employees reliant on government assistance, with a cost to taxpayers in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Retail is tremendously important to the U.S. economy and middle class, but Wal-Mart's shadow looms large over the sector. Fifteen million Americans work in retail with most workers earning little more than $20,000 per year. Unionized jobs in the sector enjoy better wages and benefits, but the difference has fallen significantly in recent years as a result of the pressures of nonunion competition.
When unions were stronger, the "union spillover effect" raised wages and benefits in the nonunion retail sector. Not any longer. Wal-Mart now exercises such great influence in the retail sector that the spillover effect works in the opposite direction unionized retail companies have pushed to lower wages and benefits in order to compete with the nonunion giant. Only 5.4 percent of the retail sector is now unionized nationwide, with Wal-Mart having forced several unionized retailers out of business and forced many others to drive down wages and benefits.
If private-sector unionism and decent jobs are to have any future in the United States, employees at Wal-Mart must be able to exercise their choice to form a union. As the respected international organization Human Rights Watch concluded in its scathing indictment of Wal-Mart's labor practices in 2007: "The future of workers' right to freedom of association is at stake when the world's largest company can regularly violate this fundamental right with virtual impunity in the world's largest economy."