It was freezing in Chicago post-Thanksgiving Day: the coldest it has been since last February (51 degrees), and the wind chill kept getting worse. Yet, on Friday morning at three different Wal-Marts throughout Chicago, hundreds of people gathered to protest, joining with some 1,000 Wal-Mart actions in 28 states and around the globe, including one store in Costa Rica.
It was Black Friday, the most important consumer “holiday” in America: the chosen day of the strike was not taken lightly. Nor has Wal-Mart responded lightly: part of the rationale for the mass strike is that Wal-Mart has been accused of retaliating against employees who have attempted to organize better working conditions. As a friend of a friend organizing on the ground articulated: “Wal-Mart takes this shit seriously.”
So what sends Wal-Mart employees outside in the cold on one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year?
Wal-Mart is the third largest employer in the world, second only to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese Army. Wal-Mart has been in scuffles with the U.S. Department of Labor numerous times, specifically regarding back wages, and recently 2,000 women have joined together to file sexual harassment cases against the big box chain.
But what is most notable about Wal-Mart’s egregious labor record is not necessarily in violation of any laws: it is the simple disregard for the number of its workers living in poverty. In a recent CNN interview with Wal-Mart Vice President of Communications David Tovar, host Carol Costello challenged Tovar on Wal-Mart’s salary practices: the retailer pays full time staff barely above minimum wage of $15,000 a year.
The Huffington Post recently acquired a copy of an internal memo, the Field Non-Exempt Associate Pay Plan Fiscal Year 2013, regarding its wage policies: after six years at Wal-Mart, the average “solid” performer can still only expect to make about 10.61 an hour. This strict pay plan has benefited Wal-Mart’s shareholders—the company’s profits rose 9% in the last quarter of 2012—while keeping off its employees below or near the poverty line and dependent on government aid. Each year, Wal-Mart costs American taxpayers $1.5 billion because its employees are paid too little to meet their basic needs. Wal-Mart claims that these measures are necessary to ensure its “everyday low prices.”
Strikers remain skeptical of this rhetoric: not only is North America the only location where Wal-Mart employees are not unionized, but according to the Economic Policy Institute, the net worth of the Walton family was as large as the wealth of the bottom 30.5% of Americans in 2007. In light of this information, OUR Wal-Mart, the organization coordinating the strikes, calls on Wal-Mart to pay its employee at least $13 an hour, and “ensure that no associate” (Wal-Mart corporate jargon for “employee”) has to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. This skepticism is backed by a recent policy report by Demos, which notes that a wage increase equivalent to the OUR Wal-Mart is aiming for across the entire retail sector would lift 700,000 Americans out of poverty. Even if this were financed exclusively through raising shopping prices, the total cost to consumers would be only 15 cents per shopping trip. Demos recommends instead that companies use profits to pay for wage increases, which would leave the consumer with only the additional average expense of 7 cents a trip: not a bad exchange for boosting the quality of life of 1.5 million people.
As Black Friday wrapped up, Wal-Mart spokespersons seemed triumphant: they dismissed the protests as “the latest union publicity stunt,” and noted that this Black Friday was one of Wal-Mart’s largest sales days ever in terms of revenue. Yet, this strike has made history, whatever the outcome: this is the first time that Wal-Mart employees at multiple locations have gone on strike since the company opened fifty years ago. And since Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the world, this strike could set precedent for retail workers around the country, especially interesting since the retail sphere is projected to be one of the largest growing professional sectors in the next few decades. But even without all of that, the strike is an important ideological victory: as Wal-Mart cashier Vanessa Ferreira said in a Huffington Post article, she’s always thought that when it comes to employment practices, “you can’t fight Wal-Mart.”
The hundreds of people freezing outside Chicago Wal-Marts on the morning after Thanksgiving seem to think you can.