Walmart Says Unions Are Bad, I Disagree.
Union is a dirty word in America and I don’t understand it but then Australians often have a different view on the subject of unions. Perhaps that’s because Australia has a long history of trade unionism and most people tend to view unions as more benevolent than bad. It began in 1856 when a small group of Australian workers organized and became the first in the world to win an eight hour day. There were other victories that followed and the Australian Labor Party was formed to represent the union movement politically. In 1899 they won a state election to form the world’s first Labor Government.
I grew up in a country with this history, where unions were not considered to be the bad guys. Labor Governments have been responsible for many of the things that Australians take for granted: universal healthcare, accessible education, age pensions and many other improvements to the lives of working families. These things have not come at any great cost; Australia has a booming economy with 5.1 percent unemployment and a federal minimum wage of $15.96 per hour. This is not meant to be a travel brochure for Australia or a suggestion that the grass is somehow greener but simply to make the point that unions are not necessarily bad for an economy.
America also has a history of unionism but for a long time now, it seems that unions have had a bad reputation. Certainly, there are many examples of corruption and criminal influences like the bad old days of the Teamsters but without the blood and sweat of unions in the early years of last century we’d be working seven days for peanuts. If you doubt that, think about your own employer. Some companies have a modern approach but chances are you work for a company that would cut your pay in a heartbeat given the chance. Chris Rock said it best: “You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? “Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.”
We have tens of millions of people working for seven bucks an hour with the taxpayer picking up the tab in the form of food stamps and what basically amounts to corporate welfare. We think those food stamps are going to the working poor but in reality, the payments are going to the likes of Walmart because if they paid a few dollars more, then those payments would not be necessary. Walmart revenue in 2012 was $446.950 billion so it’s a little hard to feel sorry for them if they had to come up with an extra dollar or two per hour for their employees.
I’m using Walmart as an example because they are in the news this week for the strike in Chicago and also because they are well known for their anti-union tactics. It’s ironic that the companies that need unions the most are often the ones that fight their employees when they try to organize. Companies that treat their employees well are less inclined to stop people from forming unions, because their employees would lose too much if they tried to strike.
It’s too early yet to see how much of an impact this industrial action will have on the retail giant but expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks. Don’t be surprised if some of the things that you hear imply that Walmart is the victim along with the notion that we all will suffer if Walmart is forced to increase their hourly rates. That’s because one of the standard arguments used by companies like Walmart is that raising wages will harm the economy. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, that is not necessarily so. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education released a study last year on how a higher wage standard would impact Walmart workers and shoppers. The main findings were:
“…IMPACT ON WORKERS
Our analysis reveals that establishing a higher minimum wage for large retailers like Walmart would have a significant impact on workers living in poverty or near-poverty. We find that 41.4 percent of the pay increase would go to workers in families with total incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (200 percent FPL). These poor and low-income workers could expect to earn an additional $1,670 to $6,500 a year in income for each Walmart employee in the family, before taxes.
IMPACT ON CONSUMERS
Even if Wal-Mart were to pass 100 percent of the wage increase on to consumers, the average impact on a Walmart shopper would be quite small: 1.1 percent of prices, well below Wal-Mart’s estimated savings to consumers. This works out to $0.46 per shopping trip, or $12.49 per year, for the average consumer who spends approximately $1,187 per year at Walmart. This is the most extreme estimate, as portions of the raise could be absorbed through other mechanisms, including increased productivity or lower profit margins…”
The rest of the report makes for interesting reading but let’s not forget that this industrial action, like others throughout history, is not just about higher wages, it is about respect. Walmart is a company that appears to have no respect for the workers who earn it those billion dollar profits. Do a quick search online and it will take only a few seconds to find some of the horror stories about how Walmart labor practices have affected employees and their families. It doesn’t have to be that way and that’s why, even in 2012, we need unions to stick up for the little guy.
If the workers of Walmart succeed and manage to unionize their workplace to some extent, they can’t do it alone. There’s no excuse for not being decent in life and Walmart needs to be reminded of that. Next time you need to buy groceries or a made in China shirt then think about this: By supporting Walmart, you not only support their labor practices, you support their disrespect for hard working Americans. Do unto others…