As anxious shoppers trekked from the warmth of their homes for Black Friday deals, at Walmarts across the country workers seized the day to strike for fair wages and fair treatment. Many of the workers who picketed instead of working, faced retaliation from a company known to intimidate those who threaten to organize.
Strike and protest events happened in 100 cities in 46 states around the country on Thursday and Friday. Workers, along with family members, community leaders, and organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, took to the streets to raise awareness about the low wages (nearly half of the children of Walmart employees are uninsured and rely on Medicaid) and working conditions of the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.
But even as news reports showed public support for the workers, shoppers crossed picket lines to get low-cost goods they themselves struggle to afford:
“The strikers need to pick a day when people aren’t counting on the sales,” said Liz Brookings, who was pushing a cart overflowing with socks and underwear for her four grandchildren on Thursday evening. “A lot of people need this day. They save up for Black Friday all year, and this is all there is.”
While I do not condemn corporations or even capitalism. I have often condemned Walmart for its legacy of corruption, illegal practices against workers (here and in sweatshops), ecological damage, and its treatment of women. This is a company that not only makes billions of dollars — and avoids paying billions in local, state, and federal taxes every year — but it pays its workers so low that the majority of their employees are living below the poverty line.
It’s not a question of if Walmart is doing wrong; it’s a question of why we do so little to stop them.
Of course one problem is the very one that I mentioned earlier. In a depressed economy where so many are unemployed or under-employed, just getting by is an expensive prospect. Nevermind the added expense the holidays bring. Another problem is the scarcity of retail diversity in many communities across the country. Walmarts are well-known for invading and colonizing business ecosystems — killing off any and all competition until they are the last retail outlet standing. So, what do you do if you live in, say, the middle of the country and its 50, 100, or maybe more miles to find a place that has what the one and only Walmart in your town does?
But this cycle must be broken. Not because of some anti-Walmart militantism that is beyond reason, but because the very nature of what Walmart has become. Walmart is not some family-owned business writ large. Unless perhaps you mean another kind of family business: the mob. Because when Walmart moves into a town, it not only kills off any competition, it strong-arms local and state governments to give them grossly unearned tax incentives. Then it dumps toxic waste in your watershed. It promises lots of jobs but doesn’t pay fair wages or benefits, so more people in your community end up using public safety net programs than before. It treats women and minorities like second-class citizens. Meanwhile, it takes out suppliers and vendors who refuse to provide goods at the low prices Walmarts wants. And then, if anyone dares to speak out about any of this… if anyone dares to protest or unionize… watch your kneecaps.
Get on the bad side of Walmart, and they will go after you with all they have.
It’s no wonder that a large portion of those who were demonstrating on Thursday and Friday were not current Walmart employees, but members of the community and unions. After all, how does something change? Sometimes it takes more than just the people inside the system. Sometimes it takes a village.
Whenever I write or speak about Walmart, someone invariably says something like: They don’t have to work there. Or, “You don’t have to shop there.” True. But in an economy with such serious job scarcity, are you really saying that people who are working hard are bad people? If those same people quit and can’t find another job, they’ll likely end up using food stamps or other government programs. People like to brand folks using those programs as lazy. It’s a damned-if-you-do situation if I ever saw one. We criticize people when they are out of work and then we criticize them for asking for fair treatment when they do work.
As a consumer, I do vote with my dollars. I refuse to shop at Walmart until they fix their labor problem. Why would I support a company that treats women badly? Why would I support a company that treats anyone badly?
The bottom line is that Walmart is so big that it sets a standard in the retail and corporate world. It is like the line in Spiderman: With great power, comes great responsibility. If Walmart has such power, then it needs to act responsibly. Pay workers a fair wage. Pay workers equally. Pay their fair share of taxes to be a good corporate citizen and community leader. As Walmart goes… so will other retailers. That’s power. And they need to start using it wisely.
I’m afraid that protests and strikes like those that just happened will continue to have a public relations problem until the plight of Walmart employees can be framed in a message from one of the workers themselves. They need a Norma Rae, one of their own, who is brave enough to speak for them. While I have nothing against unions, their participation as an organizing entity and as the public face of these demonstrations, ultimately hurts the cause. People do not want to face their own culpability in the Walmart problem. So seeing these events as union public relations rather than the plight of real people is a convenient way to shrug off the fact that cheap products have a much higher cost than advertised.
Wherever she is, here’s hoping Norma Rae shows up soon.
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