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By Joshua Brown
“Every day is a scary day for a poor person in this country.”
I don’t have much sympathy for the American fast food worker who explained that remark to me in a flash of frustration. But there’s truth in this sentiment, whether he meant it to or not. The average annual income for a full-time worker in this country is about $25,000. If there are any resources left, most of those are trapped in tax-exempt accounts that are used to pay for college, cars, homes and vacations. Poor people live in houses and live in cars. Poor people get paid wages in exchange for work in which they do not contribute to society at all.
Walmart, one of the largest employers in the world, has been on the forefront of de-unionizing the food chain industry, luring these vulnerable workers with an ever-expanding store footprint and a culture of low pay, aggressive management and confusing scheduling practices that only serve to create increasing insecurity.
Most of these temp/part-time workers are “just employed” (i.e., customers pay for their food); a large percentage of Walmart’s workforce is estimated to be college graduates who can afford to live elsewhere. A high proportion of these workers are immigrants, many who are undocumented. This poses not only a citizenship problem, but an immigration enforcement problem because of the support system built up during the days of white, working-class men.
There’s no question that Walmart is a company with enormous influence over American employment policy. It acts as a lobbyist, and, as Vox notes, “retail workers are a large source of opposition to raising the minimum wage.” Retailers like Walmart also have vast control over construction and zoning, which in turn gives them access to both human and material resources. I have written about these issues before, but it bears repeating that the majority of people working for Walmart are there by choice. None of them are there as victims of circumstance.
Much of the Walmart work force lives paycheck to paycheck, and that’s perfectly okay as a human instinct. All they want is a job with real income, a means to pay for basic necessities. But there is a unique kind of vulnerability within this industry that isn’t present in any other. It’s inhumane, but it’s clearly not the fault of the employees or their families.
I think the workers could also benefit from a political awakening. Politics, including economic policy, is not abstract. It’s real, and individual workers are connected to it. For instance, looking at income distribution from 1973 to 2016, it’s clear that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. My wife’s parents worked in call centres. They ended up not being able to afford to move to the suburbs they once hoped to live in. My parents managed to move to Houston after having their $25,000 annual income slashed to $10,000 by health care costs that made running a car unaffordable.
I believe Walmart provides a position for low-wage workers to achieve class justice. This, along with union representation, would be a major victory for the nation’s underserved and forgotten communities. But I think it would be a success that could help to create another economic bottom line that mirrors what workers in other sectors enjoy.
There’s simply no excuse to pay under $8.00 an hour.
If Walmart were to pay its employees the same as other major retailers – around $22.00 – the workers would have more money in their pockets, while the company would have enough to grow to the point where it could absorb the growing costs of caring for the people who have built it up.
For many of us, $22.00 is what it takes to adequately survive. But for a part-time or temp worker, it can be impossible. Working for Walmart can also be both illegal and risky, as the company is currently the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging discrimination based on race and gender.
But the value of something ultimately comes from the willingness to try to achieve it. For Walton, it means that there’s a decision to be made as to what kind of society we want to live in. For Walmart workers, it could mean the possibility of a better life. That’s what I see in the bargain.