As Wal-Mart Workers Plan Record Black Friday Protests, Study Says Retail Giant Can Afford Higher Pay

Amy Goodman
Democracy Now! / Video Interview
Published: Tuesday 26 November 2013
The National Labor Relations Board also ruled last week that Wal-Mart violated the rights of striking workers.

As Black Friday approaches, Wal-Mart workers and activists are planning another round of protests and strikes at the nation’s largest employer on the biggest shopping day of the year. The Black Friday protests come at a time of heightened scrutiny for the company. It made headlines last week when a photo surfaced online of a sign made by workers at one of its stores in Ohio. The sign was taped to a table and read: "Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner." Wal-Mart says the food drive shows the company tries to help its workers. But critics say it reveals the low wages Wal-Mart pays them. The National Labor Relations Board also ruled last week that Wal-Mart violated the rights of striking workers. We are joined by Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos who co-authored the new report, "A Higher Wage is Possible: How Wal-Mart Can Invest in Its Workforce Without Costing Customers a Dime.” We also speak with Barbara Collins, a former Wal-Mart employee fired after last year’s Black Friday strike. Collins speaks to us from Bentonville, Arkansas, where Wal-Mart’s headquarters is located. She has been protesting there since Friday as part of a group of eight fired workers who are demanding their jobs back after the NLRB’s ruling that their firing was unfair.

 TRANSCRIPT

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As a busiest shopping season of the year gets underway, we look at what could be the biggest day of action yet against the retail giant Wal-Mart. The Black Friday protest, come at a time of turmoil for the company. On Monday, the company announced its CEO, Mike Duke, was retiring and would be replaced by Doug McMillon, who started out as a teenage worker in a Wal-Mart warehouse. Last week the company, which is the largest private employer in the United States and the world, made headlines when a photo surfaced online of a sign made by workers at one of its stores in Ohio. The sign was taped to a table and read "Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner."

AMY GOODMAN: Wal-Mart says the food drive shows the company tries to help its workers. But critics say it reveals the low wages Wal-Mart pays them. Now the food drive photo is being featured in a TV ad by the campaign OUR Wal-Mart, short for the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart. It calls on workers to go on strike and join more than 1500 protests scheduled on black Friday.

ACTOR: There’s more to Wal-Mart than you think.

SPEAKER: Please donate so Associates can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner?

NEWS HOST: They’re one of the most successful companies, I mean, money-wise, what they bring in and the family that owns it.

CHRIS HAYES: They need a food drive for their own employees was something they did not have to do in the first place.

WAL-MART WORKER: All of your sales floor Associates and cashiers are struggling to make a living.

ACTOR: That is the real Wal-Mart.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This comes as the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Wal-Mart violated the rights of striking workers. In a statement, the NLRB said Wal-Mart, "unlawfully threatened, disciplined and, or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests. The incidents include last year’s Black Friday protest that saw workers lead rallies at more than 1000 Wal-Mart stores and another strike at stores across the country this past June. TheNLRB says it will pursue charges unless Wal-Mart can reach an agreement with the workers in the coming weeks. Wal-Mart spokesperson, Jerry Lundberg, says the company will "pursue our options to defend the company because we believe our actions were legal and justified."

AMY GOODMAN: For more we’re joined by former Wal-Mart worker Barbara Collins who was employed for eight years at a store in Placerville, California. A year ago on black Friday, she joinedOUR Wal-Mart and led her coworkers on strike. She was later fired for her organized efforts. She’s joining us from Bentonville, Arkansas where Wal-Mart’s headquarters is located. She’s been protesting there since Friday as part of a group of 8 fired workers who are demanding their jobs back after the NLRB’s ruling that their firing was unfair. We are joined here in New York by Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst ad Demos. She co-authored their new report, "A Higher Wage is Possible: How Wal-Mart can invest in its workforce without costing customers a dime." Last year she wrote a related report "Retails Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers the Industry and the Overall Economy." We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s first go to Barbara in Bentonville, Arkansas. Talk about the NLRB ruling and what exactly happened to you last year.

BARBARA COLLINS: Yes, hi everyone. I just need to clarify something. I was terminated in June. So, I participated on the Black Friday strike last year and then I also participated with the two week long strike in June. In June is when I was terminated for speaking out. The NLRB ruling is just overwhelming. We are really excited that they found that we’re telling the truth, that they broke the law, and we want to be reinstated. So, we are here in Bentonville and it is very cold. We have been out in front of the home office every day, Friday, Saturday and then yesterday and will be out there today.

AMY GOODMAN: Protesting.

BARBARA COLLINS: Yes. Asking them to respect the law and to reinstate us.

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine Ruetschlin, talk about what OUR Wal-Mart, the organizing that’s going on all over the country, has now put out in its ad. This appeal by Wal-Mart to its employees, to help other employees who maybe don’t have enough money for food on Thanksgiving. Talk about the significance.

CATHERINE RUETSCHLIN: Sure. The revelation of that food drive in Canton, Ohio is a really important moment for people outside of the retail sector looking in, to really see what it means for these workers to stand up to one of the most powerful companies in the world and ask to be treated with dignity and respect. It is not just at the holidays that workers are struggling. When you are in a poverty level wage, putting food on the table is always a tough task. We found talking to Wal-Mart workers over and over again that their wages give them just enough to meet their basic needs and at the end of every month, they’re making critical trade-off decisions. Determining whether they’re going to get medicine or pay their school fees or put food on the table or keep their electricity on. So, what workers like Barbara who are out there really had a chance to show the average American who interacts with retail all the time and maybe has seen that these protests have been increasing in their intensity but hasn’t really been able to sort of relate to what that actually means.

NERMEEN SHAIKH You have also pointed out that Wal-Mart is aware they pay about 825,000 workers more or less poverty wages. So, how is this justified? Have you spoken people at Wal-Mart and gotten a sense of how they can justify this?

CATHERINE RUETSCHLIN: It’s true. Wal-Mart’s CEO — Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon, back in September, in a presentation to Goldman Sachs was actually responding to the workers demands and calling out, as they called out Wal-Mart for fair wage, and saying, hey look, we have 425,000 workers who earn the wage that you’re asking for. But, Wal-Mart is the largest employer — the largest private employer in the U.S. That leaves 825,000 low-wage employees. Now, that is a workforce of temporary workers, part-time workers, workers who wish they could get a full-time hours but can’t get them out Wal-Mart. And the business model that Wal-Mart chooses to operate is really this low road kind of devaluation of their labor force, where they see their workers as equally replaceable and disposable as opposed to an alternative, high-road model where they can invest in that labor force and see greater productivity, sales and a really committed staff.

NERMEEN SHAIKH You have said also that Wal-Mart could very easily raise its wages without raising prices. First of all, how is that possible? And second of all, are there other — comparable companies in the U.S. that have done that?

CATHERINE RUETSCHLIN: It’s true. Wal-Mart earned $17 billion in profits last year. Now, how they choose to allocate those profits is a business choice. What Wal-Mart did with a pretty substantial portion of it last year was go into the stock market and repurchase their own shares. What that did was consolidate ownership, it gave the Walton family heirs a greater than 50% stake in the comedy for the first time, and it bumps up earnings-per-share. But, that is kind of a short-term Wall Street maneuver that over time doesn’t actually represent a productive investment in the firm. A lot of analysts say that as the effects of that kind of one time buyback wear off, the firm doesn’t see any real long-term benefits. If they, instead, took the $7.6 billion that they used to buy back their own shares and used it to invest in their workforce, they could actually give a raise amounting to almost six dollars an hour for all 825,000 of those low-wage workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Amidst criticism of the workers low wages, Wal-Mart has been touting its campaign to promote more than 25,000 of its roughly 1.3 million U.S. employees by the end of January. The workers are featured in clips on the company’s YouTube channel, like this one.

GREGORY PORTIS: Hi, how are you doing? I am the produce manager here at Wal-Mart. I started with the company four months ago. I’ve been promoted to the department manager three weeks after I started. This time of the year is a really busy time of the year due to Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have a lot of customers that are in the store, so we try to meet all their needs and getting them everything that they want, to make sure that they can take care of their families.

AMY GOODMAN: Wal-Mart Spokesperson Kory Lundberg said the company already has hundreds of thousands of associates who earn at least $25,000 per year. Catherine Reutschlin, your response?

CATHERINE RUETSCHLIN: Wal-Mart, by their own admission, is just making the same promotions that they would have made anyway. This isn’t an improvement in their labor standards at all. In fact, what it is, is a lot of workers who have been part time before and just kind of waiting on the fringes for the opportunity to put in more hours are being kind of touted with a grand fanfare that this is a great promotion. But, it doesn’t change the fundamental labor practices at Wal-Mart where they operate on a model of low investment in their workforce and high turnover. In fact, approximately 500,000 Wal-Mart workers quit every year.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Barbara Collins, could you say specifically how much you were earning at Wal-Mart, and what message do you have for Wal-Mart’s new CEO Doug McMillon?

BARBARA COLLINS: Before I was terminated, I was making $12.05 an hour, and I was classified as a full-time associate, but that didn’t mean that I always got 40 hours a week. There was times that I was only scheduled eight hours for a week, 16 hours for a week. So, it would be — so, workers, just because they’re classified as full-time, they need to give the full time hours, and act responsible and start respecting the workers. With the new CEO, I’m really hope he listens to OURWal-Mart. We are only asking for a better Wal-Mart, and to have them act responsible when they come into the communities and follow through with their promises.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Barbara Collins, you made $12.05 after working at Wal-Mart for how long and did you have any other benefits like health care?

BARBARA COLLINS: I was there for almost 8 years, and I had to make the decision to drop my health care for me and my children because of my scheduling, no matter what, they were going to take out $36 every paycheck for health care. With it being eight hours a week or 16, maybe 32, I still had to have to pay rent, electricity, put food on the table for me and my two children. So, it was a really hard decision, and I had to cancel it.

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine Reutschlin, if you could talk about that, the issue of health care, and also you have the owners of Wal-Mart very much involved in the political process, actively campaigning against business regulation. As well as being very much in sort of the camp of the sort of antigovernment approach and support for people. And yet they depend on welfare and government support for their workers.

BARBARA COLLINS: That’s right. A recent report showed that every single Wal-Mart in the country cost taxpayers between $900,000-$1 million in support for poverty alleviation programs like critical health care for workers and their families. The Walton’s see this as a huge subsidy to their company, but they could be making a better business decision. They are part of this organizing against government’s intervention in the workplace, but they could take upon themselves in the absence of government action to pay more wages, and they would see huge gains. They would see greater productivity. They would see lower costs from turnover and training as workers stick around and are more loyal to the firm. And over the last couple of quarters, Wal-Mart has actually been complaining about unimpressive sales. They blame this on a challenging retail environment. But, what they don’t realize is that they are generating that challenging retail environment I’m not putting enough money in the pockets of the people who shop there.



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ABOUT Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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