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Struggle for workers’ rights slowly bear fruit as Walmart raises minimum wage

By Rebecca Kanter

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(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Last Thursday, Walmart announced it would increase the wages of 500,000 of its employees to a minimum of $9 an hour beginning this April, and $10 an hour by Feb.1, 2016. The company also announced plans to improve scheduling to ensure more consistent hours. These are momentous changes that have an incredible and important impact, as there’s a history of workers risking their jobs to demand better working conditions. For years, organizations like OUR Walmart, Jobs with Justice and the union, United Food and Commercial Workers International, have worked tirelessly to build worker power among Walmart employees and demand better work conditions, despite the very real risks of retaliation.

The most publicized protests for this campaign have occurred during Black Friday. As a member of the UMass chapter of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), other members and I took time during Thanksgiving break to tap into several of the protests at 1,600 stores in 49 states, demanding $15 an hour for Walmart employees. This past summer, I also stood alongside other students of the United States Student Association in front of a Walmart corporate office in Southern California, demanding paid sick days for workers.

As students, it might seem these issues don’t apply to us, but they do. Massive wealth inequality remains a serious concern in the U.S., and real wages have remained stagnant for decades. As future graduates, we are stepping into a labor market where living wages, paid sick leave, maternity leave, health benefits and other labor standards are still a fight, not a guarantee. Supporting labor struggles as a student is refusing to accept the inequity of the U.S. labor market, and demand it be altered. It acknowledges the intersection between student and worker issues. Walmart has profited from providing employees low pay and little job security, while Sallie Mae has profited one billion dollars from student debt.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the single largest private employer in the U.S and has one of the largest salary disparities between the highest and lowest paid workers. Although the Walton family net worth tops $152 billion, the average associate makes only $8.81 and many of its associates rely on food stamps. These reasons make the company an obvious target for pressuring reform in the private sector. While the company’s announcement to raise wages is certainly a step in the right direction, it still has ways to go in improving its labor practices. Additional reform will likely only come from continued pressure from workers and students should continue to support these campaigns.

This recent victory for Walmart workers (and taxpayers) demonstrates that people have the power to change large institutions with far greater resources. When an announcement such as this hits the news, it is important to remember that this change did not happen out of the goodness of Wal-Mart’s corporate heart. Instead, years of campaigning and countless associates’ courage to risk their jobs has brought this issue to light and driven the push for systemic change. Ultimately, this organizing has created concrete improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Thursday’s landmark victory is not the end of this campaign, but sets up future fights for $15 an hour and a union. The struggle to be able to work with dignity and respect at Walmart continues.

Rebecca Kanter is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Struggle for workers’ rights slowly bear fruit as Walmart raises minimum wage”

  1. Richard on February 25th, 2015 1:51 pm

    The real problem is globalization of the world economy and technological advances which arrive at dizzying speeds. Case in point: General Motors. GM cut some 500k jobs during the recession, only about 100k of those jobs have returned even though GM has records sales and profits. Why? Automation of the production line. This situation has been replicated in industry after industry, with the remainder of manufacturing moved to low cost centers around the world. The U.S.’s deliberate move to a service economy has exacerbated the low-wage environment. These no-skill jobs are limited in number and the U.S. has too many millions of unskilled labor. Even higher wage jobs are becoming commoditized by the minute, for many of the same reasons. Despite the nonsense they teach in current economics classes, globalization has been a disaster for the U.S. middle class. The fact that about 3-4 billion too many people reside on the planet is not helping in terms of wage growth, not to mention killing the planet in terms of natural resources, pollution, water, arable land, etc. This is a huge problem. Walmart is the poster child of the greedy corporation, but in fact all these companies are rational actors given the circumstances. I attended a tech conference two months ago in which it was predicted by some pretty formidable industry sources that U.S. unemployment could reach 30% by 2030. That’s scary, but it is a prospect we are facing. This problem is a LOT bigger than Walmart.

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