Why The Black Friday Worker Actions at Wal-Mart Mattered

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Why The Black Friday Worker Actions at Wal-Mart Mattered

By most accounts, yesterday's worker actions at Wal-Mart have were a rousing success. Organizers say there were strikes at 1,000 stores in 46 states; hundreds of workers walked off the job, and they were joined by hundreds of other activists and community supporters. Based on reports by The Nation's Josh Eidelson, the Wal-Mart actions sound like they were a lot of fun: at rallies, there were light shows, mic checks, and subversive Christmas carols (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”, “Deck the aisles with living wages”).

Organizers say that yesterday's Wal-Mart strikes, combined with earlier, immigrant-led actions against abusive practices at Wal-Mart suppliers, are part of a strategy of gradual escalation that will be the "new permanent reality" for Wal-Mart: keeping the pressure on, and throwing a harsh national spotlight on the retailer's bottom-feeding, exploitative labor practices.

Why do these actions matter? First of all, there's the brute fact of Wal-Mart's enormous size and power. Wal-Mart is the third largest public corporation in the world, and also the world's largest private employer, and largest retailer. And as historians like Bethany Moreton have pointed out, when it comes to its employees, Wal-Mart, with its roots in the culture of the agrarian South, has always taken an anti-modern, deeply feudalistic and patriarchal approach. Its economic model is based on low-wage labor, and it has been notable as one of the most vehemently anti-union employers in American history. Since Wal-Mart is such a behemoth, and since its ideology is so passionately anti-labor, it has been one of the driving forces in our economy that has been disempowering and immiserating American workers and accelerating economic inequality. Here, for example, are a few shocking stats, from internal Wal-Mart documents that were recently released: low-level workers at Wal-Mart generally start at only $8 per hour, and, even if their evaluations are flawless, are eligible for a yearly raise that is, at maximum, 60 cents per hour. Most workers get only 20 to 40 cents, and the average worker, after working there for six years, would only be making $10.60 an hour.

I like to explain it this way: Walter Reuther's 1950 "Treaty of Detroit" between automakers and the UAW set a benchmark for post-war employers that ushered in an era of rising prosperity for workers, decreasing economic inequality, and a growing middle class. By contrast, Wal-Mart, with its ideology of anti-union feudalism and its commitment to low-wage wage labor, has set a benchmark for today's employers that has encouraged them to underpay their low- and middle-level employees and lavishly overcompensate those at the top, which has led to anemic economic growth, skyrocketing economic inequality, increasing downward mobility, and a struggling middle class.

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