The Large Retailer Accountability Act and the Labor Movement

walmartlivablewageAs Marxists, we welcome and fight for any increase in the wages of workers. A gain for one layer of the working class is a gain for all, and there are few layers of the American working class more desperate for such a gain than retail workers. The 2010 average retail worker’s hourly wage was a wretched $10.09, adding up to a $20,990 yearly income. However a four-person family in DC requires a staggering $88,615 every year, a clearly unattainable amount of money for parents working the most common job in America.

Walmart, the largest employer in America, is an exceptional example of the hyperexploitation endemic in the retail industry. Wage theft is commonplace, adequate health care is denied, and brutal union-busting is a standard business practice for the massive corporation. Female employees are paid less, given fewer promotions, and often subject to sexual harassment. Workers are hired at close to minimum wage and given raises in tiny increments. Only after six years on the job can a full-time employee hope to make above $10 an hour. 

Many Walmart workers live on the brink of destitution, making it from paycheck to paycheck only with government assistance. But while Walmart workers struggle to keep their heads above a flash flood of overdue bills and rent payments, their bosses are swimming in cash. The Walton family is the richest family in the world with a combined worth of $115.7 billion. Mike Duke, the Walmart CEO, earned an obscene $20.7 million in 2012.

Walmart is no outlier in the retail industry. Whoever their employer, retail and service workers are overwhelmingly overworked and underpaid. Their labor produces hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, but they are paid poverty wages while the parasitic bosses rake in criminal amounts of wealth. The most common job in America exposes the true nature of capitalism: endless misery for the exploited; an orgy of opulence for the exploiters.

The scandalous behavior of the large retailers has left most Americans repulsed, and Walmart in particular is the subject of much popular outrage. In July 2013, the DC City Council added its “living wage” bill to the chorus of disapproval. The bill requires retailers with stores of over 75k square feet and $1 billion in annual revenue to pay their workers at least $12.50 an hour.

Public response has been decisively split on class lines. Home Depot, Target, AutoZone, Lowe’s, Walgreens, and Macy’s have all appealed to the mayor to veto the bill. Walmart went further, delivering ultimatums and threatening to pull out of future local plans if the bill is signed. Conversely, the bill has the full support of the unions and community activists.

While workers will welcome this sip of water in the desert, the bill itself is woefully inadequate. A $12.50 hourly wage is short of what would be a true living wage in DC, which is estimated at $13.67 for a single-adult household. A $26.35 wage is needed by a single parent with one child, and two parents raising three children would require $29.17 an hour between them.

Additionally, the bill does nothing for the majority of minimum wage earners in DC, never mentions critically needed benefits or pensions, does not affect retail workers employed on the borders of the city or in smaller stores, and fails to tie wages to inflation. Furthermore, retailers with unionized workforces will be exempt from the new legislation. Why union shops should be exempted is not clear. Unionized workers should make much more than the proposed $12.50 an hour. Unfortunately, this appears to be another case of the union leaders negotiating with allegedly “good capitalists” against “bad capitalists” like Walmart, instead of fighting on behalf of our class against all capitalists.

Granted, the LRAA is a small step forward for a small section of DC workers. But a leap forward for the entire working class is needed if the masses of DC are to achieve a truly livable existence.

Many workers continue to have sincere illusions in the Democrats. After all, all eight votes came from Democratic council members (with the exception of one independent, who holds one of the two seats reserved by city law for candidates not affiliated to the Democrats). But the Democratic Party is fundamentally a party against the interests of the working class. It is a capitalist party of the rich and for the rich.

In the context of the postwar boom, the bosses could afford concessions to the working class; a section of the bourgeois, represented by the Democrats, postured as “friends of labor.” But today, capitalism is experiencing its deepest crisis yet and the masquerade is over. From mayors to governors to the president himself, Democrats in power push a program of cuts for the workers and protection for the bosses.

If the past half-decade has not demonstrated this reality explicitly enough, DC Democratic mayor Vincent Gray might himself. While he hasn’t yet made his decision public, he is widely expected to veto the bill.

alwaysunionbustingMeanwhile, the City Council majority represents not the class interests of the laboring masses, but the liberal mythology of “responsible capitalism.” In this Keynesian utopia, all that is wrong with capitalism is the recklessness and selfishness of a few capitalists. Apparently all we need are proper regulations that will create responsible capitalists.

These liberals make a fetish of companies like Walmart because such companies lay bare the vicious nature of capital. But while companies like Walmart are certainly diabolical, they are not the root cause of capitalism’s problems. Capitalism is the problem itself, and Walmart is merely its product.

Ultimately, the resistance against Walmart is not the work of the Democrats, but the workers themselves. The recent wave of Walmart strikes has terrified the entire bourgeoisie, including the liberal politicians. Anti-Walmart Democrats see a threat in Walmart not out of the good of their conscience, but out of their fear of the two million–plus Walmart workers. They attempt the impossible task of preventing an inevitable upsurge of class struggle.

Democratic Mayor Gray is a less naïve representative of his class, and his likely veto of the bill makes clear where he really stands. In this dispute between unions and big business, he has already placed himself with the latter.

The contradictions in the DC Democrats stem from contradictions within the bourgeois class. But ultimately, they are on the same team, disagreeing only over how best to contain and defeat us. The labor movement cannot rely on its class enemy; we must rely only on our own forces. Only the working class can challenge the bosses’ exploitation.

Superficially, the interests of DC workers and the DC City Council appear to coincide. The LRAA drama has the forces of labor and liberalism intersecting, but in reality they are going in opposite directions.

Until the labor movement breaks with the Democrats, the working class will be fighting a battle with its enemy on its back. True, the Democratic council members have legislated a wage raise, but it is ineffective and insufficient. And now their mayor may steal this small victory even before it’s won. Workers deserve more.
Workers deserve a living wage and a livable existence. Only a workers’ party, a mass party of labor, can realize the demand for higher wages for all workers. If higher wages are to be won and protected, the trade union leadership must split with the Democrats and run workers for office on a working-class program. If the trade union leaders are not up to this task, then they will be replaced by mounting rank-and-file pressure. Free of the noxious Democrats, organized labor can effectively lead the broader working class, unleashing a flood tide of mass mobilizations, strike actions, and political victories.

Marxists welcome and fight for any increase in the wages of workers, including the LRAA’s wage raise. But if such demands are to mean anything, they must be secured through mass struggle by the labor movement. The Democrats are no friends to this struggle; they can only run workers’ demands into the ground. Only the working class can free itself from the bondage of capitalist exploitation and oppression in the retail industry and beyond.

The conquest of higher wages is but one step closer to the conquest of power by the working class. As Trotsky explained in 1938: “The strategic task of the next period—prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization—consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

• For a mass party of labor to fight for the working class!

• For a national minimum wage of at least $16 per hour!

• Tie wages to inflation through periodic Cost of Living Adjustments!

• Mobilize and organize the entire working class to fight against capitalist exploitation and for socialism!


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