US: Wal-Mart – Always Low Wages. Always

Wal-Mart has become the world’s largest corporation, having surpassed ExxonMobil for the slot, and is now the country’s largest private employer.

Wal-Mart CEOs point to their creative marketing strategies and “commitment to customer service” to explain their rise to the top. But behind the company’s friendly, homespun image lies an untenable reality for its one million workers whose bad conditions and pittance wages have left a trail of anger in wrecked communities from coast to coast.

A Tale of Two Wal-Marts

The gap between rich and poor widened at an unprecedented pace throughout the 1990’s. Average CEO pay in the US rose from 42 times the average worker’s pay in 1980 to a peak of 531 times the average worker’s pay in 2000. Wal-Mart epitomizes this trend. Of the ten richest people in the world, five are Waltons – the ruling family of the Wal-Mart empire ( S. Robson Walton is ranked by “London’s Rich List 2003” as the wealthiest man on the planet, boasting a personal cash pot worth $91 billion.

As Lowdown put it: “Wal-Mart and the Waltons got to the top the old-fashioned way – by roughing people up. The corporate ethos emanating from the Bentonville headquarters dictated two guiding principles for all managers: extract the very last penny possible from human toil and squeeze the last dime from every supplier.” (

The average full-time Wal-Mart employee makes a mere $15,000 a year (by their definition, a full-time employee works at least 28 hours or more a week). A dismal 38% of its employees are signed on to the company’s expensive health plan.

One Wal-Mart sales associate (the euphemistic term Wal-Mart gives its shop floor employees) tells a horrible tale of the graveyard shift: “If employees were caught stealing, they were paraded through the store for everyone to see. I saw town young stock boys fired on the spot for eating a piece of candy out of a bag which a customer had opened.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed more suits against Wal-Mart for cases of disability discrimination than any other corporation. A top EEOC lawyer told Business Week: “I have never seen this kind of blatant disregard for the law.”

Sexual harassment and discrimination are common experiences for women, and a nationwide sexual discrimination class action suit has been filed that includes more than 500,000 employees and ex-employees, making it the largest such suit ever filed against a private employer.

The suit accuses Wal-Mart of systematically favoring men in pay and promotions and telling women, particularly mothers, they were not suited for managerial roles. Women constitute 72% of the company’s workforce, yet 90% of managerial positions are held by men. (

Wal-Mart workers have created numerous websites to share experiences carrying hundreds of testimonials under such headings as “Wal-Mart was my own personal hell” and "You are worked like a dog and treated like one." The company is notorious for unfair dismissals, forcing workers to continue working after they have clocked out, and discriminating on the grounds of illness.

Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart’s all-American hometown image has little to do with reality, as it relies on overseas sweatshop labor. The labels tell all (except when they lie): Made in China, Philippines, Bangladesh, and covertly, Burma – a country that the US has prohibited trade with!

An observer described one of Wal-Mart’s suppliers, a Honduras sweatshop: “Going into these factories is like entering a prison where you leave your life outside. The factory owners do not let the young workers think for themselves. The workers need permission to use the bathroom, and they are told when they can and cannot go…Young women enter these factories at 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old. They become a mechanism of production, working 9 hours a day plus two, three or four hours overtime, performing the exact same piece operation over and over, day after day.”

Coming to a Town Near You

The growing Wal-Martization of America is ruining many communities. Wal-Mart strategically selects suburban communities for building massive stores that require huge parking lots and facilities whose cheap prices attract customers away from existing retailers. Once competition has been driven out, Wal-Mart raises prices accordingly!

Often after Wal-Mart has moved in and crushed its competition, they then shut down their new stores to force shoppers to travel to its Superstores (averaging 200,000 sq ft.) that are even further out of the way. Wal-Mart’s out-of-town centers perpetuate the unnecessary use of cars and are often built over land that had been preserved for environmental or historical reasons.

Wal-Mart insists that it gives back to the community by donating to charity and providing jobs. However, according to Bill Quinn, author of How Wal-Mart is Destroying America, for every two low-paying jobs Wal-Mart creates, it destroys another three.

Some critics characterize Wal-Mart as an aberration from the norms of competitive capitalism. In fact, Wal-Mart is quintessentially capitalist. The market system forces Wal-Mart, like any other privately owned business, to ruthlessly prioritize profits over any social or human consideration, leading to the industry’s domination by a few corporate giants.

Small businesses alone will never be able to challenge Wal-Mart’s dominance, but they have a potentially powerful ally in the one million-strong army of exploited Wal-Mart workers whose labor the company can’t do without.

The Fight to Unionize Wal-Mart

“Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization,” reads a company guidebook for supervisors. “You as a manager are expected to support the company’s position… This may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and improper conduct.”

Wal-Mart is an industry pioneer in incredibly paternalistic management practices. Employees must sing chants before every workday: “Give me a W!” and so forth. Management relentlessly tries to brainwash employees with anti-union videos, lectures, and literature. At locations where a real threat of unionization exists, managers commonly lead employees in the chant “Vote No!”

Wal-Mart’s new push into the grocery sector has threatened workers at unionized stores who receive higher wages and benefits. This has forced the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) to attempt to unionize Wal-Mart. However, they have only engaged in limited campaigns at select locations, the pinnacle of which was organizing 11 meat-cutters in Jacksonville, Texas!

Quinn reveals the inherent weaknesses of the UFCW leaders’ snail-pace approach in his description of the organizing drive: “Brad (UFCW organizer) had permission from his boss to take things slow and easy – one step at a time. Maurice and Brad agreed that for a first vote they would target the only true college-degreeless craftsmen in the store – the meat cutters. Pharmacists who must have at least five years of college could come later.”

The UFCW has conducted a campaign of attrition, hoping that the National Labor Relations Board decides in their favor and that a boycott of Wal-Mart will eventually force the company to accept the union. But the union leaders’ small-scale, selective, easy-does-it approach will not suffice in the face of Wal-Mart’s vicious tactics.

By now, the union leaders should know that a tiger cannot be skinned alive. Only a full-frontal campaign aiming to organize all of Wal-Mart’s one million employees, spearheaded by the AFL-CIO (the national federation of unions), will be successful. This is the only way to counter Wal-Mart’s inevitable attempts to fire activists and shut down individual stores where the campaign is strong.

The rise of Wal-Mart is in itself a condemnation of the utter failure of the union leadership. They failed to unionize Wal-Mart when it started out small, preferring to rest on their laurels, trying to hold on to the sectors of the economy that were unionized in the 1930’s and the post-war period. Under their noses, Wal-Mart has grown into a mammoth monster, setting the trend in the rapidly growing, low-paying service sector – now the largest part of the economy – of which only 6% is unionized.

Tens of millions of low-paid service sector workers are in crying need of union rights and conditions. If the labor movement is going to overcome its crisis of a shrinking, aging membership and address the reality of today’s changing economy and workforce, it has to organize the service sector.

By launching an aggressive and public organizing drive at Wal-Mart, the labor movement would place itself at the forefront of the battle against low-pay. Organizing Wal-Mart would inspire a whole generation of exploited service workers (often young, female, and people of color) by showing that the unions are fighting for them, opening the doors to the unionization of millions of service sector workers.

Organizing Wal-Mart will require the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart workers to take on – and defeat – the Wal-Mart bosses. The current AFL-CIO strategy of promising only vague “justice and respect” has generally failed to unionize significant numbers of new workers. It is necessary to link the struggle for a union to bold, fighting demands, such as a living wage of $12.50/hour at minimum, full benefits including 100% employer-paid healthcare, and an end to discrimination. These demands would convince Wal-Mart workers that it is worth putting up a major fight and sacrificing for a union, despite the risks, by showing that the union intends to make a real difference in their lives.

To lay the groundwork, the unions should send in thousands of “salters” – union activists who get jobs at Wal-Mart to organize from within.

Another crucial tactic to bring the maximum pressure to bear on Wal-Mart is mobilizing public support. This requires taking the campaign to the streets and organizing strategic pickets to inform the public. By linking the struggle against Wal-Mart to the fight for all low-paid workers, the unions could organize large demonstrations and protests with massive public support.

Overcoming the brutal tactics of a corporation the size of Wal-Mart will require returning to the successful strategies and tactics of the union movement in the 1930’s. This means putting the union drive under the democratic control of the workers themselves and preparing to use militant, direct action tactics like mass picket lines, sit-ins, and strikes to shut Wal-Mart down and hit them where it hurts – in their profits.


From Justice, journal of Socialist Alternative, CWI in the US.

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September 2003