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My WalMart Experience: Everyday Low Wages

Walmart generates more revenue than any other company in the world, with $500 billion coming in annually from the labor of over two million employees in nearly 12,000 stores. For over 20 years, it has held the first or second place on the Fortune 500 list. If Walmart’s revenue were the GDP of a country, it would be the 25th largest economy in the world, roughly matching the size of Argentina. This base of supply and distribution holds incredible potential for providing for human needs, but instead, it is the property of a small handful of stockholders, who currently enjoy an astonishing $6.7 billion in annual profits.

The company received a boost of positive publicity when it announced a $2.7-million investment in wages for workers at all Walmart-owned stores. From this, one might imagine that those working for the company are rolling in cash. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only was the investment divided among over one-and-a-half million “associates”—as the company euphemistically refers to its workforce—it was also combined with a renewed push to automate many existing jobs, including self-checkouts and robots that scan shelves and clean floors. And in a drive to compete for market share with that other anti-union retail behemoth, Amazon, it increased its online sales by 40% last year.

Adding to the feeling of dread many workers suffer, as they can see they are on the chopping block, Walmart recently announced plans to cut up to 40% of its senior pharmacy staff in yet another round of restructuring. This is how the company thanks the workers who provide 11% of its revenue, in the pharmacies that are present in almost all of its stores. Naturally, the market rewarded Walmart for these systematic attacks; its stock value is near an all-time high, and sales have grown for 19 consecutive quarters.

Walmart Workers ProtestWalmart’s empire holds incredible potential for providing for human needs, but instead it is the property of a small handful of stockholders with $6.7 billion in annual profits. / Image: UFCW International Union via Flickr

I was hired at a new Walmart Supercenter in an economically impoverished area of Northern California. As part of my training, I was told that it was against company policy to discuss wages. Despite this warning, my fellow workers and I did not keep our wage levels secret. It quickly became apparent that the much-touted wage increase was not only limited to specific sections of the store but that even in these areas, wages were assigned more or less at random, leaving all the workers confused and unhappy with their meager raises. One person with decades of grocery experience might receive the state minimum wage, while a new hire with no experience might receive a dollar more. When you live paycheck to paycheck and are already neck-deep in debt, these seemingly small amounts make a big difference.

Despite Trump’s claims about the supposed health of the economy, the employment figures conceal a desperate crisis of underemployment for millions who are considered employed, but who are barely making ends meet. This is true for countless Walmart workers who are routinely forced to work at reduced hours. While full-time workers might work as few as 34 hours, there is no hard bottom for part-time workers. Against our direct experience, workers are told that our departments are overstaffed. Part-timers are told their schedules will now be capped at 28 hours per week; the truck crew will now work seven-hour days instead of eight, and there will no longer be a night shift; and so on.

Management informs us “nobody will lose their jobs” and yet we begin to notice a pattern of coworkers being written up and terminated for spurious reasons, and suddenly the rest of us are being called to work outside our departments for the last few hours of our shifts, taking care of the tasks that are typically left to the night crew. In reality, we are chronically understaffed, and these cuts make it all but impossible to complete the tasks we are assigned in our own departments. When things in our individual departments do not get done, we can be sure that it is not the management who sent us elsewhere who will hear the complaints or be disciplined, but the “associates” in that department. Rumors also abound that certain employees are being disciplined for speaking their own language while working and that a certain manager has been making inappropriate advances on a young employee. Rather than the manager being punished, the employee has been reassigned to a different job, at a lower rate of pay.

Rally of Walmart WorkersThe discontent is growing among Walmart employees, and with it, a desire to take on the company. / Image: UFCW International Union via Flickr

Suddenly there are whispers of that forbidden word: “union.” Some coworkers begin discussing the benefits that a union would bring to associates, while others resign themselves to the hope that after a few years of experience at Walmart, they might be able to find a job at a union grocery store. These are only the initial murmurs of what will be an arduous struggle, but the discontent is growing, and with it, a desire to take on the company.

Defeating the vanguard of the anti-union movement will require a serious fight. When Walmart butchers successfully unionized in the early 2000s, the company responded by eliminating the in-house butcher departments altogether, and to this day, they receive daily shipments from an outside supplier. The AFL-CIO leadership, for their part, appear to have stepped back from attempts to organize Walmart workers. Instead of preparing an aggressive campaign to organize the stores directly, it has created a pressure group, “Our Walmart,” which hopes to convince the company to improve conditions through symbolic protests. This is a mistake. The working class can fight and win, seemingly against difficult odds, if they are guided by class-struggle methods and an understanding of their power to change society. Symbolic “pressure” and “persuasion” never yet compelled the capitalists to sacrifice their profits.

Organizing the workforce of the world’s largest company will require more than an aggressive union campaign—our fight will have to enter the political arena as well. Republicans and Democrats have shown time and again that they will not fight for our interests. Why should they? Both parties receive millions of dollars from the Walmart Super PAC and the Waltons. Only a mass socialist party based on the unions and fighting for militant working-class policies can give us our own political voice.

A workers’ government would nationalize Walmart and the rest of the Fortune 500 under democratic workers’ control. It would weld these immense economic levers into a unified and rational plan of production and distribution to meet human needs, transforming what was once a brutal instrument of capitalist exploitation into a global force for the free development of humanity.

Most Walmart workers do not yet have this perspective. How could they, when the labor leaders avoid anything remotely approaching militant struggle or the fight for systemic change? But as the crisis of capitalism deepens, and their experience leads them to the conclusion that there are no individual solutions or solutions within the system, we are confident that many more Walmart workers will join the fight for a socialist revolution.

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