Wal-Mart Sweats Its Assets, Unions Attemp To Gain Foothold
Wal-Mart, to me, is a high-tech sweat shop with air conditioning and good lighting. I confess, however, to buying things at Wal-Mart, but every time that I do, I feel guilty and dirty. I'm sure that I'm not alone in my sentiments but unfortunately, for millions of Americans, Wal-Mart has turned into a bad habit that's virtually impossible to break. Indeed, average Americans are now at the financial point where they're compelled to shop at Wal-Mart because they simply can't afford to shop anywhere else. In economic hard times, the sales of inferior goods always rise.
A significant amount of Wal-Mart workers, in the U.S,. are on some form of government assistance (i.e welfare), because Wal-Mart doesn't pay them enough. And by some estimates, at least 70% of Wal-Mart's goods are made in China by workers that are lucky to get paid $5.00 per day if that much.
In 2004, it was estimated that Wal-Mart imported $18 billion in goods from China, and that Wal-Mart accounts for 15% of U.S.consumer goods imported from China. If Wal-Mart were an individual economy, it would rank as China's eighth biggest trading partner.
Do you get the picture as the picture pertains to the future of the American worker? Wal-Mart and other giant retailers get cheap goods, made by virtual slaves and indentured servants from China, and sell those goods to millions of Americans that can't afford to buy anything else. At the same time, Wal-Mart is continuously cutting its costs by "sweating" its labor. Wal-Mart has also received over $1 billion in state and local government subsidies, i.e. corporate welfare. This is an example of America's "free market" economy. Some "free market" economy! A double LOL!
On May 14, Wal-Mart released its first-quarter financials for 2009 and announced that despite the recession -- or, perhaps, because of it -- business was booming. Shoppers in search of cheaper products had been flocking to its stores: A full 17 percent of its customers during the quarter were first-timers. The company had been able to exploit the downturn by reducing its legendarily bare-bones distribution expenses by an additional 5 percent. In keeping with its practice of compelling its manufacturers, shippers, truckers, and warehouses to continually cut costs, Wal-Mart had been able to "sweat the assets" in its distribution network more than usual, said Eduardo Castro-Wright, head of the company's U.S. division.
On the very day that Wal-Mart released its quarterly statement, however, some of those assets announced that they'd be sweated no more. At 2:30 that afternoon, some 200 local warehouse workers, abetted by half a dozen priests and ministers and a number of union activists, paraded up San Bernardino Avenue to the main trucking gate at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Fontana, California -- an obscure Los Angeles exurb that is the epicenter of warehousing not just for Wal-Mart but for the entire U.S.?Asian trade sector.
The demonstration was an opening shot in a union drive to organize warehouse workers. Devised and run by the Change to Win Federation and backed financially by the Teamsters, it may be one of the more quixotic American organizing campaigns in decades, but it is surely one of the most important.
Forty-three percent of all the seaborne imports into the United States come through the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, roughly 70 miles from Fontana by freeway.
Like the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, to which few Angelenos travel, the Fontana warehouse district, which employs roughly 100,000 workers, is one of the key crossroads of the new global capitalist order, where Asian production meets American consumption.
Speed is at a premium. Homero Lovato, who served as a union monitor at the Wal-Mart demonstration, loads trucks in a nearby warehouse. Together with one other worker, he loads three, maybe four, trucks a day, making $42.50 per truckload. The work, he says, is a constant "rush job," with one worker scrambling to help the other should he fall behind. "If people have to go to the bathroom, they have to wait until the break," he says. "If people get sick, they have to stay on the job."
The intergenerational downward mobility of the Fontana working class -- from a unionized, high-wage, permanent work force in an economy dominated by high-end manufacturing to a nonunion, low-wage, temporary one in an economy dominated by low-end retailing -- encapsulates the story of the American working class over the past 35 years. Now, amid some of the nation's highest rates of layoffs and foreclosures, "the crappy job system out here," in the words of Change to Win's campaign director, Nick Allen, "is coming apart."
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. | Two union-backed groups announced Friday they are merging so they can consolidate their efforts to pressure Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to provide higher pay and better benefits.
Wal-Mart Watch, backed by the Service Employees International Union, will move under the name WakeUpWalMart.com, a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. In separate efforts, the groups have spent years criticizing Wal-Mart, issuing news releases, running advertisements and enlisting Wal-Mart workers in their efforts.
UFCW spokeswoman Meghan Scott says the groups share the same goals of pushing Bentonville-based Wal-Mart to pay higher wages and improve health coverage and other benefits.
"It makes a lot more sense to be doing this together," Ms. Scott said. "We know the size of the company we're up against."
Wal-Mart has a market capitalization of nearly $195 billion and employs 1.4 million U.S. workers. Adding its international business, Wal-Mart has more than 2 million employees.
Ms. Scott said the new group doesn't have a big splash planned, but is organizing events in a number of cities for the second week in August to push for better health coverage for Wal-Mart workers. The unions have said that when a company as large as Wal-Mart makes changes, the effects ripple through other companies.
In June, Wal-Mart and the SEIU joined to endorse the Obama administration's proposal to mandate that all employers provide health insurance.
The unions began their direct assault on Wal-Mart after years of failure in trying to unionize its workers.
Originally, Wal-Mart bristled at the criticism, with then-CEO Lee Scott in 2005 likening the attacks to being "nibbled to death by guppies." But he went on to meet with critics and make changes within the company. By the time he resigned last January, Mr. Scott had greatly softened the company's image.
UFCW President Joe Hansen said working families are still struggling, "while corporations like Wal-Mart continue to reap record profits."
"The UFCW is standing with them to achieve the health care and labor law reforms that will restore and expand the middle class," Mr. Hansen said.
Daphne Moore, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the company would have no comment.