As Josh Eidelson reported last week in Salon , retail workers at Walmart walked off the job in a strike for the first time in the company’s fifty-year existence. And he reports today  that the strikes have spread: workers in Dallas, Texas, and Laurel, Maryland, have joined the original strikers in Southern California stores, and workers in other cities are expected to join in. Walmart is famous (or infamous) for successfully warding off unionization at its stores during its entire history, and these strikes were, as Eidelson reports, “in protest of alleged retaliation against their attempts to organize,” as well as a call for improved benefits and staffing.
While not a union making formal demands, the group behind the strikes, OUR Walmart, presented a “Declaration of Respect ” to the company in June. It called for, among other things, a minimum of $13 per hour, full-time jobs for those who want them, predictable work schedules, affordable healthcare and wages and benefits that don’t mean employees have to turn to government assistance to fill in the holes. Walmart says  the average hourly wage for its full-time workers across the country is $12.40, but an IBISWorld report put that figure  at $8.81, barely above the minimum wage. And studies have shown that Walmart workers are more likely than others in the industry to rely on government benefits. In California , for instance, where the strike started, employees’ families use 40 percent more publicly funded healthcare and 38 percent more public assistance programs than the average employee at a large retail company. Walmart, for its part, has told Eidelson that the company “has some of the best jobs in the retail industry—good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement.”
Yet these are clearly low-wage jobs, particularly if the pay is so little that many families turn to other sources to get them through. This category of work is the fastest growing post-recession. In a recent report , the National Employment Law Project classified jobs that pay a median hourly wage of $7.69 to $13.83—easily Walmart territory, no matter whose average wage figure you listen to—as low-wage jobs. The report found that it’s these very jobs that are seeing the most robust rebound: they grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage and high-wage work. The low-wage occupation with the highest growth was, you guessed it, retail.
Meanwhile, mid-wage jobs have taken a beating. They accounted for 60 percent of the job losses during the recession but have only made up 22 percent of those added during the recovery. (The numbers are basically flipped for low-wage jobs—they were 21 percent of recession losses and have amounted to 58 percent of the gains in the recovery—while high-wage jobs have basically recovered evenly.) This means that we’re trading mid-wage, middle-class jobs for low-wage ones. Given that Walmart employs 1.4 million people out of our 140 million strong workforce, a huge chunk of those will be with the company, making this strike, and its outcome, relevant to more people than ever before.
And these jobs in retail don’t just come with low pay. The Retail Action Project interviewed over 400 workers  in New York City and found that few had access to benefits. Less than a third got healthcare through their jobs and less than half had paid time off or sick days. Meanwhile, the work is incredibly unreliable: almost 60 percent are part-time or temporary and less than 20 percent have a set schedule. That meant 70 percent of respondents only found out their schedules a week ahead of time. That can make arranging childcare, for instance, nearly impossible.
This is all part of our long-term trend of trading in blue-collar manufacturing jobs for unstable service sector work, but in many ways it’s gender neutral. In NELP’s list of the mid-wage jobs with the weakest recovery growth, truck drivers come in at number one and carpenters and maintenance workers at numbers four and five. But at numbers two and three are the pink collar jobs of administrative assistant and secretary. Manufacturing and factory work have been on a long decline that was accelerated by the recession and the collapse of the housing market. Administrative work, on the other hand, has been hit by the “speed up” of the American workforce , in which fewer employees are asked to take on more work, and new businesses that can no longer afford  to hire back office support when they start up.
It’s not just the workers who walked off the job that have something at stake in taking on Walmart. As these sorts of jobs increasingly dominate our workforce, we’ll be forced more and more to ask not just how many jobs the economy is adding, but what kind of jobs. If Walmart and its ilk supply most of them, families will have little money to rely on, few benefits and chaotic work schedules. All eyes should be on this historic strike and what gains Walmart’s workers are able to make in negotiating higher pay and better benefits.
Check out Nation blogger Allison Kilkenny's coverage  of peaceful Walmart strikers' arrest in Illinois.