My Walmart Black Friday Experience, and the Productivity/Wage Gap
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Walmart workers staged their historic strike on Black Friday. Management tried to downplay it, and given how massive Walmart is, the relative strength of the strike was small in real terms compared to the company’s 1.4 million workers. But it would be silly to just leave it at that without the context of the company witnessing no labor strikes in its 50-year history. The strikes were an expression of human dignity from a segment of their labor force that feels discriminated, retaliated, unappreciated and downtrodden. Josh Eidelson has the definitive minute-by-minute report from Friday.
Now I can sit here and respond to Peter Suderman’s 17-twitter salute in defense of Walmart, a familiar mix about the benefits of low prices, the nature of retail and frankly a tautology about how docking Walmart executives pay wouldn’t allow a large raise for all 1.4 million workers, something entirely defined by their size and not the penury of their executives. But I think sharing my Walmart Black Friday experience may shed a little light on the issue, an unexamined corner that Suderman leaves dark.
It actually started out at a bust. I found my Corporate Action Network widget and located a store in Northeast Philadelphia, near where I spent Thanksgiving, that had a protest Friday morning. We couldn’t get there until a little later than the scheduled time, and as we pulled up, all we saw was a police barricade in front of the store, empty, which looked suspiciously like a free speech zone. Turns out it was designed for early shoppers so they wouldn’t run each other over with their carts and cause a stampede. Crowd control was on the minds of this store’s management, not protest.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two people holding fliers. Maybe they were with the protest, leafleting outside the store about the high cost of low prices and the wage and hour grievances of Walmart workers. But no. When we approached one, an African-American woman, she knew nothing of the protest. The fliers advertised some other store event.
We struck up a conversation with the woman. “We’re here for the Black Friday protests,” we said.
“Why are you protesting?”
“Walmart workers are walking out of their jobs in a bunch of locations because of low pay, low hours, intimidation and retaliation for speaking out.”
And here was the crucial moment. The woman had no idea that Walmart workers were low-paid. “This store makes beaucoup bucks,” she said. “I figured the workers did well because there are always lots of people in the store.”
Before, say, 1979, she would have been largely correct in her assumption, at least on this point: worker productivity and wages rose at generally the same rate. It would not have been outlandish to assume that employees at a concern that succeeded would have shared in that reward. But this is no longer how the world works. That relationship between productivity and wages has been severed. This is true well on down the supply chain, where some of the worst abuses take place, all at the behest of Walmart, whose size effectively disrupts market economics by setting the prices they’re willing to pay, leaving little for the workers who supply them. (The threat of international labor strife from these suppliers may be even more disruptive for the country. More on this from Bmaz.)
In other words, the Walmart strikes must be seen not as just a strike against one retail employer but a larger expression of dissent against how American capitalism has progressed, with rampant inequality and profits extracted out of productivity and sent to the top. And there’s no real understanding of the mechanics of how this happened, no consciousness that a busy store doesn’t necessarily mean a happy workforce. The strike signaled a cry from the bottom, the same dynamic that animated Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. It says that the current order is not sufficient to broad segments of society. Maybe not broad enough yet to have an impact, but it’s early.
One last thing about our new friend. She said, after we explained the way in which workers don’t share in the success of the company, and how hours get cut to ensure that the company doesn’t get on the hook for employee health care, and all the rest, after this she said, “I feel weak right now. I feel like I don’t want to shop in this store.”
You could boil down the entire purpose of the strike to that.
Photo by DB’s travels under Creative Commons license