Black Friday for Wal-mart

Walmart exterior

A typical Wal-Mart store in Laredo, Texas

Wal-mart has always been afraid of unions, and for good reason. The mega-store has always had a poor record of labor relations. Their corporate tactics are well-known across much of America. They target predominantly small towns at first, move in a Wal-mart store with promises that they will create jobs in the area, and produce tax revenue for the county.

Once entrenched in an area, they proceed to drop their prices below wholesale, in effect producing a loss for the store. They are quite happy to do this until such time as their competition is driven out of business. They know that given their massive size, they can afford to make a loss on a particular store almost indefinitely.

Inevitably, the local businesses lose customers, and finally go bankrupt. This happens to most of the small businesses in town, which just cannot compete with Wal-mart and its very deep pockets. Most of what a small business is likely to sell is sold at Wal-mart, just for a lot less than small businesses can handle.

Once the local businesses are driven out, Wal-mart raises prices because there is no competition around. Small businesses cannot start up because of the Wal-mart presence. The local economy stalls because there are not enough decent jobs in the area.

Wal-mart pays their staff at lower rates than competing businesses, which means that their staff cannot afford medical, transport, or even rent. Many staff members live in their cars or in sub-economic housing if they can find it. They cannot afford to shop at Wal-mart, despite the fact that it is a discount retailer. Their staff often end up shopping at dollar stores. They need food stamps just to make ends meet.

Despite the fact that Wal-mart relies on low paid staff to do the work of stocking the shelves, unloading cargo, cleaning the stores, and manning the checkout, it is not a union shop. It is the kind of retailer that would normally be unionized, but it is not. The reason for the lack of union representation is that Wal-mart takes aggressive anti-union action.

Whenever the unions attempt to create a union shop, Wal-mart takes action in a number of ways. First, they fire the union representatives, which creates fear among the other employees. Anyone that attempts to join a union is also fired. Wal-mart also hires mostly women, who are far more pliable and less likely to complain about the conditions under which they work. They are also far less likely to join a union.

If union busting does not work, Wal-mart just closes down the store, which removes any union activity altogether. The unions have been unsuccessful in creating a union in multiple shops at the same time.

For years, Wal-mart paid their women less than their male counterparts, and promoted men over women. There was a recent court case in which a class action suit was brought against Wal-mart for this precise reason. The judge threw the case out because he did not consider a countrywide case a class action. This despite the fact that Wal-mart was discriminating against women.

The women got no justice in this case, and Wal-mart can continue to do what it is doing. The women of a single store cannot risk this kind of case, because they would probably be fired if they tried.

These are the tactics that Wal-mart has successfully used for decades against their employees, and there seems to be little that the employees can do against them. This is what happens when a single corporation is allowed to create an authoritarian monopoly.

Everyone suffers. The staff suffers due to low pay, few or no benefits, little latitude in working hours. Shoppers suffer because in areas with few other retailers, since most have been driven out of business, prices are higher than they could be with more competition. Other workers in the area suffer because there is nowhere else to work, wages in the area are driven down so workers can no longer afford mortgages or transport. The entire area suffers due to lack of tax revenue, which affects schools, roads and other services usually provided by the state of local government.

A number of unions have attempted to open shop in Wal-mart stores and all are confounded by Wal-marts aggressive and inhumane tactics. It appears that this Thanksgiving may be different. A coalition called Making Change at Wal-Mart has apparently been successful at establishing a presence in several Wal-mart stores, just in time for Thanksgiving. Workers are going to start walking off the job. Wal-mart claims that the strikes are being organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

So far, the protests look quite small. In California, according to BusinessWeek about a dozen workers walked off the job in a Southern California distribution center, and about thirty workers in Seattle. BusinessWeek says that this coalition plans a wave of strikes in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C in about a thousand stores.

The strikes are as a result of Wal-Mart decision to cut its contribution to workers health care costs. This means that workers contributions will effectively rise anywhere between 8 and 36 percent. This is taking money from workers that earn less than $9/hr. According to Reuters, many workers will sacrifice coverage, probably because they can no longer afford the coverage.

Wal-mart, along with Target and Sears, plans to open stores on Thanksgiving night at 8pm. This means that workers have no time to spend with their families to celebrate a national holiday. There will be no Thanksgiving for these workers, no time with their families at all, just so that Christmas shoppers can waste their Thanksgiving evening waiting in stores for Black Friday specials.

We need to ask whether anyone really needs to rush out and spend time in line waiting for a three hundred-dollar flat screen TV. Is time with their families not more important? Should workers not have the right to spend valuable time with their families. Clearly, profit is more important for Wal-mart than the well-being of their workers.

Wal-mart has a history of treating their workers with contempt, often keeping them on as temporary workers in order not to have to provide essential health care or other benefits. When workers complain about scheduling or other problems, Wal-mart cuts their hours or fires workers. The executive at this company have no conscience or sympathy with the workers that are making them wealthy.

Shareholders reap handsome dividends, which could be used to pay for worker’s health care. The Walton family is worth around $100 Bn as a group. None of them started this company, which was started by their father, Sam Walton. They are yet another example of the idle rich living off their fathers largesse, while doing precious little themselves to earn their fortune. They could easily fund their worker’s health care, but they don’t care to do so.

I have reduced my purchases at Wal-mart to the absolute minimum. I cannot justify purchasing some items elsewhere because of the cost, but for the most part, I buy very little at Wal-mart. I believe that more people should just refuse to buy their products until they start to pay their workers more. I call it a buy-slow. If Wal-mart will not allow their workers to unionize, or to pay them more, the only other option is for people to stop buying at the stores. This country does not need another monopolistic retailer.

I really hope that the strikes are successful. I have my doubts, but there is always hope. If customers have solidarity with strikers, the strike might work.

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