Controversy requires two opposing points of view on a topic that both have legitimacy. Examples of legitimate controversies in my life include how long is “too long” for a dish to soak in the sink and which way the toilet paper roll should unfurl. As a primary care physician I ponder the appropriate level of involvement I take in helping my patients make medical decisions; how to balance disempowering paternalism with the need for guidance. I read articles that debate the optimal duration of anticoagulation after peri-surgical atrial fibrillation. These are controversies because there are no clear answers.
Walmart’s labor practices are not controversial. They are simply abusive. It’s offensive that it’s even labeled as something worth debating.
Yesterday marked the third annual Black Friday protests and strikes at Walmart, the largest private employer in this country. The Walton family, controlling owners of the company, is America’s richest family, with holdings valued at almost $150 billion dollars. For decades, Walmart has remained an employer powerhouse based upon a business model of low wages, poor benefits and union busting.
And though the spin-doctors of Walmart would have you believe that these protests and strikes are simply exaggerated demonstrations from a very vocal minority, the growing number of petitions, strikes, and studies say otherwise.
It’s not just the Walmart workers who suffer. While folks might think that they’re saving money by shopping at Walmart, a 2013 a congressional report found otherwise. Walmart’s wages are so low that many of their employees require public assistance such as food stamps. The report calculated that a single “Walmart Supercenter” cost taxpayers anywhere from $904,542 to nearly $1.75 million dollars a year in taxpayer subsidies for employees. Another study estimated that that total annual cost to tax payers nationally was a staggering $6.2 billion dollars. And the kicker? Eighteen percent of the food stamp distributions are spent at Walmart stores; that means that taxpayers essentially subsidized the $16 billion dollars in profits that Walmart made last year twice—once to subsidize wages, and once to subsidize the shoppers buying company products on sale in the stores.
Based on numbers that Walmart itself released in a Goldman-Sachs presentation in September of 2013, Fortune magazine calculated that Walmart could afford to increase wages by 50%. Demos, a non-profit research group, calculated that Walmart could afford to pay every employee $14.89/hr without raising prices. That’s directly in line with the demand of $15/hr that protestors and workers are asking for, (but still not as much as paid by Walmart competitor Costco).
Walmart’s litany of injustices are enraging and frustrating, but it’s not that interesting. It’s simply another tale of the rich getting richer off the backs of the poor.
What is interesting is the new strategy for worker empowerment. The strategy of a few individuals striking and protesting one day a year is a complete departure from historical union strategy that has relied on en masse worker solidarity to directly threaten production.
Instead, this approach relies on the persistence of a brave few and their indirect impact.
Leveraging worker power in an increasingly intricate and consolidated market is complicated. While the same threats of loss of income and retaliation in the workplace continue to exist to dissuade workers from standing up for their rights, now corporations are multi-site and multinational. Even if all 300 workers at one Walmart store were brave enough to go on strike and shut down operations, Walmart has hundreds of other sites to absorb that loss. They can hunker down and eat the loss in order to make a point to the rest of their 1.4 million employees that they are not to be challenged.
Old strategies in a new environment don’t work so here’s the new one:
By striking only one day a year, the economic burden that individual workers face is reduced. The fact is, strike funds and employee savings will always run out before the large coffers of Walmart. Battles of attrition are no longer practical. Targeting Black Friday, the most anticipated shopping day of the year, creates a continual media presence. This leverages the more complex pressure points of public opinion and consumer preference in a far more sustainable way. An annual strike also creates a continual presence among the employees, reminding them to not acclimate to injustice but to fight it. Each year that the strikes and protests continue is proof that standing up to Walmart can be done. It inspires others to join the movement. And finally, by targeting the largest retailer and employer in the country, any impact that is made sends ripples through the entire labor force.
However, the brilliance of the strategy is also its Achilles’ heel. While the number of people who pay attention to Black Friday is enormous, and it is also a day targeted towards luxury goods and indulgences. The best-case scenario would be that consumers have a moment of reflection and ethically prioritize the human rights of others over their desire for a cutthroat deal on a new TV.
But human psychology is complex and cognitive dissonance is distressing. While Walmart is, of course, a specific entity, it’s also representative of a larger problem that we Americans all prefer to ignore: we all want more stuff but can’t afford to have it all at its true cost.
Walmart’s labor abuses fall into the category of uncomfortable truths that in our heart of hearts we know but find too inconvenient to admit to ourselves. It’s much easier to assert that the reports of Walmart’s labor practices are controversial. If we tell ourselves that they haven’t been proven true yet, we can still go shopping, guilt free.
Walmart is a symptom of the synergistic chronic diseases of capitalism and consumerism that plague our society. They’ve been around for so long that we’ve convinced ourselves that they are not diseases, but simply a reasonable way of life. By admitting that Walmart is systemic problem, we come dangerously close to admitting that our enjoyment of the entire retail industry, the comforts of life that we expect, are only affordable because of the exploitation of others far enough down the supply chain that we can ignore them.
It takes a significant amount of insight to accept that what we think is a reasonable living standard in the US is actually opulent by world standards and even by standards of our own society. It takes even more strength to realize that if we are to live humanely, we cannot afford to keep all of our creature comforts; we must give some of them up. The amount of willpower needed to do that in an environment where nobody else is doing it is enormous.
However, all of that struggle pales in comparison to the immense amount of courage that it takes to be one of the Walmart workers who continues to go on strike every year. Risking one’s livelihood -- one’s ability to feed, clothe, shelter and nurture yourself and your family -- to fight an entity that has infinitely more power and resources -- is more profound than words can express. It’s certainly braver than anything I have ever done in my life.
Surely, if Walmart workers can muster the strength to stand up against a mammoth corporation, we can surely muster the strength to stand up to ourselves and forgo shopping at Walmart and other retailers like it.