Wal-Mart, Fast-Food Strike Brings Attention to Low-Wage Workers

Lower-wage employees of the mega-retailer Wal-Mart Stores and fast-food restaurant workers "“ many of them people of color "“ are trying to cast a harsh spotlight during the holiday season's twinkling lights on what they say are poor working conditions and scant wages.

(Related Atlantic Story: McJobs Should Pay, Too: Inside Fast-Food Workers Historic Fight for Living Wages)

Workers from McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Domino's, and Burger King walked off their jobs on Thursday in New York City in their effort to obtain better wages and the right to unionize in what some observers say is the largest-ever push to unionize fast-food workers, according to a New York Times report.

Last week, hundreds of employees of Wal-Mart Stores, which became a giant retailer by serving lower-to-middle income customers through a strategy of price matching and providing all types of goods in a single location, walked off their jobs during the busiest shopping day, Black Friday. Wal-Mart, which sells everything from diapers and beds to food and sporting goods, has more than 2.2 million employees worldwide.

The walkout was part of Organization United for Respect at Walmart, OUR Walmart, a group of current and former Wal-Mart workers backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and grassroots organizations. Since summer 2011, Our Walmart members staged protests, speak-outs, and even a flash mob to the tune of the song "Respect" in a Washington Walmart store.

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With more than 125,000 black and 74,000 Latino employees at the big-box store and its subsidiary Sam's Club, Wal-Mart Stores is the leading employer of people of color in the country, a PBS investigation found.

Food prices at Walmart stores are generally 8 percent to 27 percent lower, compared with major supermarkets, studies have found. But those savings also suppress wages, according to a 2011 study from the Labor Center at University of California (Berkeley). And these workers make greater than average use of public health and welfare programs, ultimately transferring such cost to taxpayers.

Colby Harris has worked in the produce department in a Lancaster, Texas, Walmart for the past three years. In June, a coworker told the 22-year old about Our Walmart, the group that's helping organize the strikes across the nation, with backing from the UFCW.

Harris joined immediately. Employees who have spoken up about poor working conditions, such as few available pallet jacks or scanners to track inventory, he said, have faced retaliation that generally comes in the form of getting fewer working hours or being closely monitored during a shift.

Since joining Our Walmart, Harris noted, he has worked "twice as hard," because "I know they're watching me."

He also walked out during Black Friday because his share of employer-offered health insurance will increase to $100, up from the $30 he now pays. For someone earning $9.30 per hour, that's simply not affordable, Harris said.

Authors of the Berkeley study "Living Wage Policies and Big-Box Retail: How a Higher Wage Standard Would Impact Walmart Workers and Shoppers," argue that if the company would raise its hourly wages to $12, it would cost $3.2 billion in payroll costs, about a 1.1 percent increase. If the entire costs were passed to customers, it would cost them $0.46 per shopping trip or $12.49 per year.

Like  many of his coworkers, Colby spends most of his grocery money at Walmart.  "What we make, we spend it here," he said. "I know no associate who shops elsewhere. When you're barely making it, you don't shop where it's more expensive."

Similarly, the fast-food employees in one of the most expensive cities in the nation are calling for a $15 minimum wage, up from the current $7.25 per hour. The "Fast Food Forward" campaign "joins the movement from Black Friday strikes and lower low-wage workers" because employees can't afford basic necessities, such as rent, child care, and transportation, according to the campaign's website.  New York Communities for Change is leading the efforts, according to Reuters.

Colby said he understands that Walmart shoppers go there to buy cheaper goods. Many support their demands. "But they feel like, "˜It's not our fault. We're going to shop for deals. They want to support us, but at the same time where else do you go?"

Organizers say the recent national attention the strikes received is a victory in itself. "People are starting to see the reality — that it's not a figment of our imagination," Harris told The Next America on a call in the parking lot of his job. "We don't have a living wage or affordable health care."