Walmarts have been popping up all over the country in the last five years — 455 new stores, or a 13 percent increase. Meanwhile, its U.S. workforce has been reduced by 1.4 percent, or about 20,000 employees. The number of workers per store has been cut from 343 to 301.
There are fewer products on Walmart’s shelves. Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that “pallets of merchandise are piling up in its stockrooms as shelves go unfilled” and overworked employees can’t find the time to restock the products.
For several years, Walmart has placed or tied for last among department and discount stores in the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
The situation for the workers is even less satisfying. Hundreds went on strike on Black Friday last fall. With the backing of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), thousands of Walmart employees have formed an association called OUR Walmart that works with community activists to pressure the company to make changes.
OUR Walmart has stressed the importance of flexible, consistent scheduling and adequate hours.
A report by the think-tank Demos noted that while unstable schedules are not unusual for low-wage workers, there is an intensifying trend toward “just-intime” scheduling where “employers rely on scheduling software and measures of demand (such as floor traffic, sales volume, hotel registrations, or dinner reservations) to match workers’ hours to labor needs.”
For workers, this means schedule changes at the last minute, arriving at work only to be sent home, having to stay after the end of a scheduled shift, and working both nights and days.
Walmart has increasingly made workers who are full-time (defined as 34 hours per week) into part-time so the company doesn’t have to pay anything for health care.
In January, Walmart U.S. President Bill Simon responded to worker pressure when he announced in a talk that the company was “working on clarifying the opportunities that we offer,” and would act to “bring more transparency into our scheduling system” and “make sure that part-time associates have full visibility” for full-time openings. But three months later, OUR Walmart charged that the situation hadn’t improved.
So Walmart workers and community allies around the nation went in groups to discuss these issues with store managers. I joined an “Occupy Boulder” delegation on April 25 that visited managers at seven area Walmart stores. We stopped at the Walmart Neighborhood Market under construction in Boulder’s Diagonal Plaza and then drove to Supercenters in Broomfield, Westminster, Lafayette and Longmont.
On April 27, some 50 Walmart workers and supporters held a high-spirited rally at the UFCW Local 7 headquarters in Wheat Ridge. Rev. Daniel Klawitter of Interfaith Worker Justice performed the invocation, reading from the New Testament, the Talmud and the Koran. Barb Gertz, who has worked at an Aurora Walmart for four years, talked about frustrations and indignities as well as some small victories.
This struggle will have an impact on all of us. Walmart is an economic behemoth which — according to a number of studies — degrades the wages, benefits and working conditions of all working people. In terms of yearly sales, this firm is bigger than Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Costco and K-Mart combined.
Walmart is the largest private-sector employer on the planet. It employs more than 1.4 million workers in the U.S., but pays them an estimated 12 percent less than average retail workers in the country. Walmart pays such low wages that in most states, it has the largest number of employees dependent on government assistance of any company. This costs American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
An increase in wages at Walmart would have an insignificant impact on prices — as little as a pack of gum per shopping visit.
According to Demos, even a modest wage increase for Walmart and other low-wage retail employers would lift more than 700,000 Americans out of poverty and raise another 750,000 further from the poverty line. By boosting the spending power of low-income Americans, moreover, it would grow the economy and create 100,000 new jobs.
At the Wheat Ridge rally, we chanted, “When they take on one of us, they take on all of us!” A more decent and caring America requires that kind of toughness and solidarity.