For a moment last week, it looked like Walmart CEOs were getting enlightened. The company promised to “end minimum-wage pay” for its lowest-paid sales workers and touted a plan to ‘”invest in its associate base” and maybe even offer more bonus opportunities. But though these moves might help the several thousand associates earning the absolute legal minimum of $7.25 an hour, the real problem is that hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers earn just above that level and still struggle to survive (the average sales associate’s hourly wage is just under $9). In addition to poverty wages, workers have suffered cuts to benefits and exhausting, erratic schedules.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Walmart workers once again voiced their demands for decent work with demonstrations and civil disobedience in New York City; Washington, DC; and Phoenix. They delivered a petition demanding better working conditions, now signed by Walmart workers at more than 1,600 stores nationwide, to the homes of members of the Walton dynasty and the offices of their foundation.
The actions were part of a string of protests that have drawn public attention to the dirty labor practices behind Walmart’s consumer-friendly veneer. The OUR Walmart campaign has tackled not just low wages but also the computerized scheduling systems that wreak havoc on workers’ lives. Working mothers suffer from rigid schedules and low pay scales that make it near impossible to support a family. The company’s recent move to slash health benefits for about 30,000 part-timers—following a growing trend among big retailers—effectively dumps more of the healthcare costs of struggling workers onto Obamacare. Many associates must supplement low wages with welfare benefits, adding up to billions of dollars a year for food stamps and other public assistance. Walmart meanwhile sponges off the low-wage economy’s perverse circularity: welfare benefits for impoverished employees amount to an indirect government subsidy for the company; its stores serve as a major grocery retailer for benefits recipients; and about $1 billion annually in federal tax breaks have flowed into its coffers.
The activists have made a few inroads: they have pushed for better accommodations for pregnant workers and advanced a legal challenge charging retaliation against strikers. But these campaigns often seem like a game of whack-a-mole, as the retail giant develops ever more elaborate ways to avoid paying workers a living wage. So activists are branding their campaign with a single demand for a real “investment in its associate base”: full-time work, at $15 an hour.