Black Friday protest at Walmart

The Thinker by Rodin

Remember this post? Well, probably not. Anyhow, in it I promised to try to eke revenge against the retailers of the world for the shabby way I was treated when I was a retail worker (1978 to 1980) for the now defunct Montgomery Ward Corporation which today is even worse. Now that I am retired, lack of time was no longer an excuse, so I made a note on my calendar to attend a Black Friday protest at my local Walmart (Sterling, Virginia in my case) to protest their appallingly low wages and working conditions.

Signing up was easy. I was already a member of Making Change at Walmart, the site to go if you are not a Walmart employee but want to support their cause. I get regular emails from them and have even made a couple of contributions to their strike fund over the years. I was urged to find a Walmart Black Friday protest near me, so I simply filled in the web form and marked the date and time on my calendar. For several years now, the Our Walmart campaign has targeted Black Friday for protests because it is the busiest shopping day of the year. This year a record 1600 store protests was planned.

Thus far my protesting had been confined to mass events on the national mall. This kind of protest would be a lot different. The number of protestors was likely to be small and Walmart would doubtlessly be on the lookout for us. Protest rules were pretty murky, but seemed worth whatever minor risk it entailed. This is after all Walmart: the nation’s largest, nastiest and stingiest employer. Every year they find new ways to screw their “associates”. Among their egregious tactics over the last year were requirements to buy their own uniforms, canceling health insurance for certain part time employees (doubtless few could afford it in any event), cutting the hours of workers (leading to predictably long lines at cash registers and empty shelves) and erratic schedules. All this for an average wage of $8.80 an hour and where you might get an extra dime per hour the next time your performance was reviewed.

With several weeks of notice, I wanted to see if I could convince any others to join me. Notes on Facebook did not turn up any nibbles, so I sent a note to Paul, chair of the social justice committee at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. He agreed to sponsor the protest for our church. I made sure announcements were posted in the church bulletin and hoped a few members of my congregation would join me. We have less than 200 members, so I kept my expectations modest. Fortunately for me, it got the attention of certain influential women at the church (a.k.a. the Knitting Circle, which my wife attends) who were also suitably outraged and started making protest signs. On protest day, eight of us with signs in hand were ready to protest.

However, our protest organizer weaseled out. Early on Black Friday morning we found an email from him in our inboxes. He claimed insomnia the night before and canceled the event, but he did encourage anyone that wanted to to come out and protest. We took him up on it.

I confess it was hard to get in the protesting spirit when the temperature was in the low thirties with gusty winds, but we were ready. We met in the church parking lot, collected our signs and drove out to the Sterling Virginia Walmart. As we moved toward the entrance we encountered an older couple from Illinois in town but with signs. We were it, apparently, but at least with ten protestors we got into the double digits.

Black Friday protest against Walmart's labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store
Black Friday protest against Walmart’s labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store

For 10 AM on a Black Friday, there weren’t many people going into or out of this Walmart. We stood silently outside the Walmart entrances, being careful not to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Occasionally we got a toot of a horn or thumbs up, but mostly we stood and shivered. We had a feeling though that it would not be long before Walmart management noticed us. We were prescient. After about ten minutes, a Walmart security officer told us we were on private property and we could only protest on public property. He pointed us to a hill at the far back end of the parking lot. Dutifully we walked back there. This was not an ideal location, but it was convenient to incoming traffic so we stood there with our signs and waved them up and down as cars went by.

Apparently we were not far out enough. After fifteen minutes or so we found we were observed by officers in two cars from the Loudoun County sheriff’s office. Eventually an officer approached us with the Walmart store manager. We patiently explained we were directed here by their store security. But, no, we were still on private property we were told. Walmart owned all of it. Some sort of conglomerate of course typically owns shopping centers, so it is in theory all private property. It’s pretty clear that Walmart wanted us way out of the way, like outer Siberia if possible. The closest truly public property, we were politely informed, was a median strip on Nokes Boulevard, which led into the parking lot.

And so we shuffled out there with our protest signs, dodging aggressive traffic to do so. We got the occasional thumbs up and toot of a horn in support, but mostly Walmart had gotten us out of the way, which is probably the strategy it emulated at many other stores. Had we had more protesters, perhaps we would have been harder to dislodge. After about an hour we ended our protest and moved on.

Nonetheless we were in reasonably high spirits. Without professional organization, we didn’t know what to expect or what was legal, but Walmart’s response felt very scripted. The store manager was never angry with us, but after the event one of our crew took a few of our signs into the store, and tried to give them to the store manager. She was intercepted by an assistant manager, and told she was unwelcome in the store, and ordered to leave.

Making change at Walmart is hard, not so much for us outside protesters, but certainly for Walmart employees who join the Our Walmart movement. They frequently suffer illegal firings or reduced hours. They are much braver than we were. We were just testing the protest waters, but I think I know where I’ll be next Black Friday. And hopefully we’ll be better-organized next time, and our organizer won’t use the weasely excuse of insomnia for not showing up.

As a practical matter, real change is happening in two fronts. First, many states and communities have realized that since retailers won’t raise wages and the federal government won’t, they must. So cities like Seatac in Washington State have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Northern Virginia, $15 is a living wage, but just barely. Those Walmart workers earning $8.80 an hour or so at their Sterling store are probably working a couple of other part time jobs just to get by. They may very well be getting some government assistance, which means your taxes are subsidizing Walmart and other retailers scandalously low wages. More recently, the city of San Francisco passed a retail workers bill of rights. It requires employers to make up work schedules for their part time employees two weeks in advance, helping to give them some predictability to their schedules. This addresses the sad reality that part time work these days does not supplement other wages, but is what many workers try to live on.

Do not assume that minimum wage workers are mostly students living at home and thus it’s okay to pay the $7.25 an hour. The average age of a minimum wage worker is 35. These people are hustling simply to survive in poverty. They deserve a living wage and better working conditions and hopefully just one job so they get some downtime. It’s quite clear though that Walmart will continue to frustrate and obfuscate attempts at justice for their employees until the price becomes unbearable, i.e. it seriously affects their profits and sales. I will do my part to make it unbearable.

The power and profitability of treating workers with dignity

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s taken a few years but striking fast food and Walmart workers are slowly getting some national attention. This Black Friday there was a continuation of strikes and protests that happened on Black Friday 2012, only bigger, with at least 111 protestors arrested around Walmart stores nationwide. Organizers at Our Walmart, a group organizing Walmart workers (I have given to their strike fund) claim 1500 actions at Walmarts nationwide, up from 400 last year.

One-day strikes at fast food restaurants, which used to be rare, are now becoming routine as well. Just the other day a strike was held by workers at a McDonalds inside the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. The workers there are making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. You would think that since these are federal facilities, contracts with fast food vendors would require contractors to pay their employees a living wage. But you would be wrong.

Even Walmart would agree that the facts prove their minimum wage jobs do not pay a living wage. Studies of various states routinely show Walmart employees as the largest group of recipients of food stamps in the state. Unsurprisingly, McDonalds is usually number two. On their employee web sites, both Walmart and McDonalds suggest their employees utilize public subsidies to increase their standard of living, a standard of living they refuse to provide.

This week in Washington D.C. the first two Walmarts opened in the city. There was much rejoicing, but not because their employees were going to be paid a living wage. Walmarts in the city mean that the city’s voluminous poor no longer need to take long and expensive subway and bus trips to the suburbs to get those Walmart low prices. It’s increasingly obvious though why their prices are so low. It’s because Walmart doesn’t see a point in paying a living wage when the government will keep their employees from starving for free. Food stamps will help provide basic nutrition for their employees, and Medicaid will provide health insurance of a sort thanks to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, don’t expect Walmart and McDonald’s lobbying firms to be pressing the government to get rid of food stamps and Medicaid. Their business model and profit forecasts depend on them.

What’s particularly infuriating though is that both of these employers could easily pay their employees a living wage and still make stockholders happy. They just choose not to do so. Various studies have looked at the cost of these benefits versus their profits, and it is easily affordable. They just see no point in doing this because federal subsidies effectively take taxpayer’s money and give it to their shareholders instead. And this is because we have no law that says employers must pay a living wage.

Critics of those proposing a national $15 an hour minimum wage simply say this means that employers will cut jobs. After all, they can hire two people at $7.25 an hour for one person at $15 an hour. The problem with this logic is that you cannot actually survive on $7.25 an hour without public subsidies and likely a second or third job as well. Naturally, this doesn’t bother these employers. They are in business to make money, not to be sensitive to their employees’ feelings and wallets.

If all public subsidies were removed tomorrow and the minimum wage was not raised, these employees would be showing up at work hungry (as many already do, particularly toward the end of the month) or, more likely, would have no fixed address because they could not afford rent. Their unwashed condition would probably not allow them to be employable at all. Which goes to prove that a minimum wage is not a living wage. Instead, it is a recipe for continued poverty.

There are reasons that even a Republican should embrace for paying a living wage. For those who think the government should do less, making employers pay a living wage means that federal and state governments don’t have to provide food and social services to these low wage earners. It reduces the costs and scope of the federal government.

It also ends indirect corporate subsidies. It allows companies to prove that they really are more efficient than other companies by removing the incentive toward employee inefficiency that comes with government subsidies. Think about McDonalds today and compare it to McDonalds thirty or forty years ago, if you are old enough to remember back that far. I am old enough and I can tell you for a fact very little has changed other than the menu has gotten unhealthier and the cash registers are now electronic. For forty years McDonalds has not really rethought how its restaurants could deliver better food, do so more efficiently and — here’s a crazy idea — with some actual employee engagement.

Yet Costco has found a business model that more than pays their employees a living wage, and still allows them to thrive as a business and be a leader of low prices. What incentive does Sam’s Club (a subsidiary of Walmart) have to prove their mettle when Costco can do what it refuses to do and Walmart’s profits can be boosted by government subsidies to its employees?

Perhaps most importantly, any employer worth his salt has learned long ago that employees will be more productive if you make it worth their while. They must have missed those videos by sociologist Morris Massey, such as this clip you can see on YouTube. If you want to get the best from your employees, listen to what they have to say.

It’s not that Walmart and McDonalds employees are unproductive. They are like a hamster on its wheel. They always work at top speed because they are always being monitored. They are also being told exactly how to do their job with no ability to be innovative. So mostly, they burn out or turn dull and unremittingly sullen. You can’t keep this up forever at $7.25 an hour so you will tend to quit. Even if the next job only pays $7.25 an hour, you quit on the hope that maybe you won’t have to run so quickly on the wheel with the next employer.

These “associates” have no particular loyalty because they are not given any incentive to be loyal. Give them incentives, in the form of higher pay, more interesting and challenging work, and by incorporating their ideas into the business, and you might earn some loyalty and by extension more profit. More importantly, you unleash the power of their imaginations. They’re not stupid and have plenty of great ideas on how to do things better, just no incentive to divulge them. Leveraging their ideas is a great business model. With Costco’s living wage they became keys to Costco’s success, and the key reason Walmart’s revenue stream is suffering.

The slaves on southern plantations gave all they could as well, and generally resented it. At some point they either rebelled or simply gave up. A death by beating is at least an end to suffering.

Walmart, McDonalds and most of these retailers and fast food outlets simply suffer from a poverty of imagination. The way to a sustainable business model and a happy workforce is to stop treating their “associates” like cogs in the great wheel of business. Instead, treat them as people with actual needs, like the need to have a roof over their heads and food to eat.

As a matter of public policy, there should be a national minimum wage guaranteed to be a living wage and it should be indexed automatically for inflation. It should probably vary geographically depending on the local cost of living. For those employers too unenlightened to understand that real profit comes from harnessing the minds and creativity of their employees, it at least sets a bar of decency. Any businessman worth his salt will be anxious to pay their employees more for the privilege of leveraging their thoughts and creativity to make their business thrive long into the future.