Strikes and Protests Highlight Need for Change at Wal-Mart

Carly Finkle | 07.10.2013

Wal-Mart retail workers across the United States began prolonged strikes in late May, leading up to the corporate shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas on June 7th. There, over 250 workers and their supporters protested acts of intimidation and retaliation in response to collective action.1 Just months after the collapse of a structurally unsound garment factory in Bangladesh that produced clothing for Wal-Mart, these strikes continue to expose the world’s largest employer’s pervasive labor abuses. Efforts to repress workers’ rights are central to Wal-Mart’s business model and are implemented on a global scale.2 Therefore, the movement for workers’ rights—and solidarity with workers—must also extend across borders to encompass labor throughout the global supply chain.

Wal-Mart plays a large role in the global “race to the bottom,” in which corporations seek to gain a competitive edge by decreasing wages and living standards for workers, moving production to geographic regions in which wages are lowest and workers’ rights are weakest.3 This has a detrimental impact on developing economies trying to compete to attract foreign investment by weakening environmental, labor, health and safety regulations; lowering wages; and undermining unions.4

Wal-Mart plays a large role in the global “race to the bottom,” in which corporations seek to gain a competitive edge by decreasing wages and living standards for workers, moving production to geographic regions in which wages are lowest and workers’ rights are weakest.

It was neglect for safety regulations, for example, that led to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 workers on April 24th. Despite significant civil society pressure, Wal-Mart held out on publicly committing to improve enforcement of international labor standards. Dozens of large retailers have already signed the Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a legally binding international agreement to improve working conditions in Bangladesh.5 Wal-Mart has refused to sign. The corporation announced it would release its own improved safety condition standards in July, which will not be externally monitored or legally binding.6 Given Wal-Mart’s poor track record with workers’ rights, it is highly unlikely that these self-defined regulations will be as comprehensive or as strictly enforced as those of the international accord, which is supported by the UN International Labor Organization (ILO).

Wal-Mart employees in the US also suffer from the downward pressure on wages and labor rights. The average full-time sales associate at Wal-Mart in the US earns an annual income of $15,000, working 34 hours per week and making $8.80 per hour.7 Employee benefits have also been significantly reduced and the number of part-time employees has dramatically risen since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated the provision of health insurance to full-time employees.8 Wal-Mart also encourages hundreds of thousands of employees who qualify for public assistance to apply to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, effectively forcing taxpayers to subsidize corporate profits.9

Members of the non-unionized Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart) organized the June protests in Bentonville to raise awareness about unethical labor practices and retaliatory actions that have been taken against workers engaged in collective action. Wal-Mart employees have filed over 150 allegations of illegal retaliation against the corporation since OUR Wal-Mart affiliates staged protests at more than 1,000 stores on “Black Friday,” November 23, 2012. Of the 100 or so employees that went on strike in Bentonville, five have been fired, ten have received “disciplinary coaching,” and one has been suspended, according to OUR Wal-Mart.10

OUR Wal-Mart is organizing to pressure Wal-Mart to publicly commit to improving its treatment of and respect for workers by recognizing workers’ right to collective action; offering higher wages and more hours; and improving employee benefits.

OUR Wal-Mart is organizing to pressure Wal-Mart to publicly commit to improving its treatment of and respect for workers by recognizing workers’ right to collective action; offering higher wages and more hours; and improving employee benefits. In response to the movement, Wal-Mart launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign and an in-store anti-organizing campaign. Wal-Mart also announced it would improve its scheduling system to allow workers to more easily fill open shifts and create more opportunities for career advancement.11 These actions reveal corporate concern over increasing consumer and shareholder support for the movement, and indicate a growing public awareness of Wal-Mart’s systemic labor abuses.12 However, they don’t go nearly far enough.

Driving down retail wages helps maintain the demand for low-cost consumer goods from underpaid workers, fueling further wage depression throughout the supply chain and abysmal working conditions, such as those of Bangladeshi garment factories.13 Low wages and benefits; aggressive anti-unionism; and poor working conditions are prevalent at all points in Wal-Mart’s supply chain.14 Consumers and shareholders must stand in solidarity with OUR Wal-Mart members and also with all workers throughout the global supply chain whose rights have been violated in the name of Wal-Mart’s bottom line.

 

Notes:

1 Eidelson, Josh. “Walmart Workers Launch First-Ever ‘Prolonged Strikes’ Today.” The Nation, May 28, 2013. http://www.thenation.com/blog/174551/walmart-workers-launch-first-ever-prolonged-strikes-today
2 “Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay For Wal-Mart.” Making Change at Walmart. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://makingchangeatwalmart.org/factsheet/walmart-watch-fact-sheets/everyday-low-wages-the-hidden-price-we-all-pay-for-wal-mart/
3 Meyerson, Harold. “Mending Factory Conditions after Bangladesh.” The Washington Post, May 14, 2013, sec. Opinions. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/harold-meyerson-mending-factory-conditions-after-bangladesh/2013/05/14/06d044ce-bcc5-11e2-9b09-1638acc3942e_story.html
4 “Exploring the Global Race to the Bottom.” Global Change. University of Michigan. http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/workspace/Sect007/s7g3/RTB%20effect.htm
5 United Nations News Service. “UN News – UN Agency Welcomes New Safety Agreement Between Garment Industry and Bangladeshi Workers.” UN News Service Section, May 14, 2013. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44902#.UdR-JOuhtdw
6 Sokou, Katerina. “Wal-Mart, Gap Close to Deal on Stronger Garment-factory Safety Plan.” The Washington Post, June 27, 2013, sec. Business. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/wal-mart-gap-close-to-deal-on-stronger-garment-factory-safety-plan/2013/06/26/ff3db32a-deae-11e2-963a-72d740e88c12_story.html
7 “What Happened to Sam Walton’s Creed of Respect the Associate?” Making Change at Walmart. Accessed June 27, 2013. http://makingchangeatwalmart.org/factsheet/walmart-watch-fact-sheets/fact-sheet-wages/
8 “Walmart Only Hiring Temporary Workers In Many U.S. Stores: Report.” Huffington Post, June 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/13/walmart-temporary-workers_n_3434555.html
9Meyerson, Harold. “Mending Factory Conditions after Bangladesh.” The Washington Post, May 14, 2013, sec. Opinions. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/harold-meyerson-mending-factory-conditions-after-bangladesh/2013/05/14/06d044ce-bcc5-11e2-9b09-1638acc3942e_story.html
10 Eidelson, Josh. Op Cit.
11 Eidelson, Josh. Op Cit.
12 Eidelson, Josh. Op Cit.
13 Meyerson, Harold. Op Cit.
14 “Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay For Wal-Mart.” Op Cit.