By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
As University of California-Berkeley Labor Center Professor Steven Pitts regularly notes, African Americans not only face a crisis of lack of jobs, but we also face a crisis centering on the quality of those jobs. In fact, “underemployment” has been a recurring theme in Black America, where we find ourselves forced into jobs that are low wage, few (if any) benefits, and insufficient hours.
Walmart, for all of its fancy advertising and suggestions of a family-friendly environment, is one of the main perpetrators of underemployment on the U.S. scene and this has particular ramifications for Black America. Walmart, the largest employer in the USA (which has a workforce that is 18 percent African American), and a very significant multi-national corporation, is the quintessential representative of everything that is wrong with the current U.S. economy. At the top, the Walton family is among the richest in the country, with more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of the population. By contrast, Walmart associates (employees) are at the other end of the ladder. At salaries of an average of $8.81/hour, paying for healthcare insurance becomes nothing short of overwhelming.
The Walmart example is important to note because it points to the fact that a demand for jobs must be qualified with a few additions. First things first: workers in the USA do not live part-time lives; they do not have partial rents or mortgages or partial grocery bills. Holding jobs that keep you near the federal poverty line is of little help when you are trying to cover the expenses of a family. Yes, having a job is better than not having a job, but the scourge of underemployment means that you have to run around trying to piece together additional work or additional hours just to break even.
There is little pressure on Walmart to change. The company is often quite strategic is donating funds to various causes so that their profile is beyond reproach. Yet the workers in their various stores do everything that they can to keep a smile on their faces and to keep standing with some degree of respect. Consumers go to Walmart stores in search of bargains, rarely questioning why this company is able to make so much money and why the workforce scrapes by. Nor do they stop and ponder the fact that for all of its rhetoric, Walmart is a net destroyer of jobs, costing 3 jobs for every 2 “created.” Their business model, in fact, undermines existing, local retail jobs.
There is no particular reason that the wages and benefits of the Walmart workers need be so low. The profits accumulated by the company could adequately raise the compensation of a very hardworking workforce without creating much of a dent in the halls of avarice of the Walton family. Many Walmart workers realize just this and they have begun to organize for justice. Known as Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), this organization of workers–which is not a union but has the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union–has been pressing Walmart for justice and respect. Without greater attention, and certainly in the absence of community support, their cause will be a very uphill struggle.
Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to give a damn. It is not just about the Walmart workers; it’s also about our community.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, the co-author of Solidarity Divided and the author of “They’re Bankrupting us” – And Twenty other myths about unions. He is the chairman of Retail Justice Alliance steering committee and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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