By Julianne Malveaux
For the past year, an organization called OUR Walmart, has protested, raised questions and asked their employer, one of the nation’s largest companies, to treat them fairly. They have asked for better wages, more full-time hours, and for the opportunity to earn benefits.
Walmart has responded with well-timed publicity moves. They will allow same sex couples health insurance and other benefits, but only if someone is working full time (at least a third of Walmart workers are employed part time). There were headlines about the same-sex marriage benefit, but none about the low wages that many receive, and the hurdles they must clear to get the health care benefit.
The average Walmart worker earns $8.81 an hour; but too many earn the minimum wage ($7.25 cent an hour), even as they work part time. According to Walmart’s CEO. at least half of its workers earn less than $25,000 a year, which isn’t enough to live on in a city with living costs as high as those in Washington, D.C. Yet, Walmart threatened to withdraw from agreements they had with the District of Columbia when the City Council said they would require a $12.50 minimum wage from “big box” stores.
With the District caught between a rock and a hard place – no jobs or low-paying jobs – they blinked and subscribed to the notion that any job is better than no job. The District will end up subsidizing those workers who can’t make it with their Walmart pay. They’ll be the ones lining up for food stamps, subsidized housing, and other income-enhancing programs.
No wonder Walmart wants to help workers during this holiday season. In Canton, Ohio, and in other Walmart stores, managers are asking workers to donate food so that their coworkers may have a pleasant Thanksgiving. If Walmart paid associates enough, workers would not have to transfer food and opportunities to their colleagues. Indeed, since most Walmart stores have a food section, why wouldn’t the company offer their lowest paid workers a gift certificate for $100 or so? Or, why not just pay workers so they don’t need to seek holiday supplements during the holidays. Walmart doesn’t want to pay people what they are worth, just what they can get away with.
Walmart chooses to suppress wages, so they have also made a choice to encourage some workers to provide token assistance for their coworkers who are not well paid. Walmart has put the onus of fair pay on workers helping one another, not the company helping its workers. While many Walmart employees will be concerned enough abut their colleagues to contribute, they must also ask why a food drive is necessary. In asking that question, they might also ask what impact food stamp cuts will have on their colleagues.
There is nothing magic about the $12.50 an hour wage. Some jurisdictions will push their minimum wage to $11 an hour and others will ask for more. Many retail workers say that a $15 an hour wage is the least that they can survive on. A household headed by two part-time Walmart workers qualifies for a number of federal programs. If Walmart paid each of its workers $12.50 an hour, the pay increase would not substantially reduce profit. Indeed, the profit stream might increase if employers are more productive, less likely to seek new jobs, and more likely to exercise pride in their work.
The National Labor Relations Board just announced that it would prosecute Walmart for its illegal treatment – firing or disciplining – 117 striking workers. Many of these actions were initiated in last year’s “Black Friday” when some workers did not want to work Thanksgiving Day or the day after, and others used the occasion to educate the public about their low pay levels.
This year Walmart will open at 6 a.m, two hours earlier than last year. Your dinner will hardly be digested before you head to the store. So while Walmart profess to be concerned about some workers having a good Thanksgiving dinner, they are hardly concerned about when they will have the opportunity to enjoy it, unless they opt for the Thanksgiving dinner Walmart will offer to its “associates” who are forced to work on Thanksgiving.
Enough, Walmart! Pay the people fairly. Pay them wages not giveaways. Stop threatening organizers. Have respect for your workers. Live up to the publicity that you keep churning out. Indeed, divide the publicity budget among your workers who will sing your praises when they are paid a living wage.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.