Black Friday and the Walmart strike

Robert Reich explains why shoppers should stay away from Walmart today:

A half century ago America’s largest private-sector employer was General Motors, whose full-time workers earned an average hourly wage of around $50, in today’s dollars, including health and pension benefits.

Today, America’s largest employer is Wal-Mart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Wal-Mart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits.

There are many reasons for the difference—including globalization and technological changes that have shrunk employment in American manufacturing while enlarging it in sectors involving personal services, such as retail.

But one reason, closely related to this seismic shift, is the decline of labor unions in the United States. In the 1950s, over a third of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today fewer than 7 percent do. As a result, the typical American worker no longer has the bargaining clout to get a sizeable share of corporate profits…

Is this about to change? Despite decades of failed unionization attempts, Wal-Mart workers are planning to strike or conduct some other form of protest outside at least 1,000 locations across the United States this Friday—so-called “Black Friday,” the biggest shopping day in America when the Christmas holiday buying season begins.

At the very least, the action gives Wal-Mart employees a chance to air their grievances in public—not only lousy wages (as low at $8 an hour) but also unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, excessive hours, and sexual harassment. The result is bad publicity for the company exactly when it wants the public to think of it as Santa Claus. And the threatened strike, the first in 50 years, is gaining steam.

Josh Eidelson, meanwhile, notes that Black Friday may only be the start:

Expectations are high for a historic strike. Given Walmart’s role as the dominant employer of our era, the current wave of work stoppages is already among the country’s most consequential twenty-first century strikes. But in interviews this month, workers and organizers described today’s actions as a turning point, not a climax, in their struggle against the retail giant. “This is the beginning of something…” said Dan Schlademan, a United Food & Commercial Workers union official who directs the allied group Making Change at Walmart. “This is a new permanent reality for Walmart…2012 is the beginning of the season where retail workers are going to start to stand up.”

“There’s going to be more days that we’re going to strike,” said Rozier, “and it’s not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until they respect us and give us what we want.”

Andrew Sullivan has more.

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