Depending on whom you ask, up to half a million Walmart associates got a raise yesterday. The raise was won for them by a brave rebel alliance of hundreds of Walmart workers who are interested in the continued survival of Walmart workers. Calling themselves OUR Walmart, these workers have put their own jobs on the line since 2012 by staging sit-ins, strikes, disruptions at Walmart shareholder meetings, press conferences, and other demonstrations to call attention to the company’s abysmal pay and working conditions.
The raise announced yesterday in a company press release will ensure that 40 percent of the company’s U.S.-based workforce will make at least $9 per hour starting in April, with another raise up to $10 per hour by next February. (The Daily Beast’s Michael Maiello disputes the idea that Walmart is really giving half a million people a raise, correctly noting that in states such as Rhode Island and California, where the minimum wage is already $9, workers won’t see a bump.)
The company can certainly afford to do it, as the New York Times pointed out: the nation’s largest retailer had a more-lucrative-than-expected holiday season, with its workers earning it 4th quarter revenues of about $131 billion. (Paying 500,000 people a buck more per hour will cost an additional $20 million per week, or a billion and change per year, by my calculator—or less than 1 percent of revenue.)
As labor reporter Josh Eidelson and others have noted, Walmart is doing this because it has to. It has taken serious public relations hits for years now, thanks to low-wage employer shenanigans such as stores hosting holiday food drives for its own employees, and dropping 30,000 employees from its healthcare plan (in October 2014) without offering them any more money to make up for the lost compensation. The OUR Walmart campaign, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has also publicly and successfully shamed the company for its dehumanizing treatment of workers in the areas of pay, benefits, health and safety, and morale. Finally, and significantly, 29 states (plus Washington DC) have passed minimum wage increases that mean Walmart already has to pay those workers more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour anyway.
If you zoom out on the timeline of Walmart behavior in the face of worker unrest, though, a clear pattern emerges—and within that pattern the raise for the 500,000 falls neatly into place. When something bad happens for Walmart workers (like a deadly fire killing 117 workers in a Bangladesh garment factory making Walmart clothing, or news breaking of a pregnant associate being forced to take unpaid leave and lose half her family’s income and drop out of nursing school, or a warehouse owner who packs and ships goods bound for Walmart stores discovered to be paying sub-minimum wages and forcing workers to live in tents in the woods), Walmart responds to the public outcry with a tactical policy shift designed to evade both scrutiny and accountability.
In the case of the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka (and the hideous Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1129 workers at a garment factory outside Dhaka less than a year later), the international outcry became so intense that over 190 apparel brands signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, establishing an independent inspections, retrofitting, and monitoring system for the industry’s 1600-plus factories there. Walmart also took credit appearing as if it was positively taking steps to prevent such accidents from happening again. But instead of signing the Accord, it continued its resistance toward any mandatory government or independent regulatory oversight of its practices, and set up its own (voluntary) self-inspection system—which most advocates agree is virtually meaningless in ensuring worker safety.
In the case of the pregnant worker losing her income in retaliation for asking for reasonable accommodations on the job for her pregnancy, some OUR Walmart members set up a pregnant workers’ rights campaign called Respect the Bump, publicizing the atrocious treatment of this worker. As a result, the company created a new accommodations policy for pregnant associates—attempting to pre-empt any regulatory oversight that could come from a protracted public fight over its lack of a policy. (This fight over additional regulatory oversight may be coming anyway, as Congress debates the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, introduced in the last Congress and in an array of states—it will be interesting to see if Walmart plays a role there.)
Finally, in case after case involving abusive working conditions for warehouse workers in its supply chain, Walmart has denied culpability and either quietly dropped the warehouse contractor, or adopted better workplace practices in certain warehouses without saying why. Three separate grassroots workers’ advocacy campaigns have sprouted up around the country to push for better wages and working conditions in warehouses: Warehouse Workers United, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance. All of them focus heavily on how Walmart’s abusive practices push down wages and suppress worker organizing across the supply chain.
The pattern of responding to a workers’ crisis by implementing bare-minimum changes, which can reasonably be described as little more than PR efforts, tells you a lot about Walmart’s attitude toward its workers. Contrast this with the behavior of similar companies—such as Costco, which uses higher wages, a willingness to work with unions, and other similar pro-worker policies to position itself as a leader in big-box retail employment practices—and it becomes clear that Walmart’s anti-worker efforts are not the result of business or economic requisites, but rather an internal culture that ultimately values profit revenues for executives far more than the quality of life for those whose work has made the Walton family the richest heirs on Earth.
What is perhaps most chilling here is that Walmart’s announced slight pay raises for some of its employees will likely succeed in somewhat improving the image of Walmart and its treatment of workers. Yet at the same moment that it is announcing the raise for the 500,000, according to that New York Times report, it is also announcing its intent to shrink its workforce and close stores. How many stores? How many layoffs? Sadly, we won’t know until it happens. The heroes of OUR Walmart and other worker organizing groups who have created the pressure forcing the modest raises deserve praise. But the company still has much to answer for, and a long way to go.