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.