With much of America suffering through oppressively cold weather, perhaps a summer baseball analogy is in order: American workers have just scored a run in the middle innings of a battle for economic justice and dignity.
There are more innings to play and more runs that must be scored, but it's worth cheering the advance made by Walmart workers this week when it announced that it would give its workers an increase in its base wage to $9 an hour starting in April and $10 an hour starting next February. That will mean raises for about 500,000 full- and part-time workers, according to the company.
Credit goes to the campaigns launched by a number of grassroots organizations that for years have shone a light on the anti-worker policies that are endemic in big-box retailing but where Walmart, the largest bricks-and-mortar chain, was a pacesetter.
“We are so proud that by standing together we won raises for 500,000 Walmart workers, whose families desperately need better pay and regular hours from the company we make billions for," said Emily Wells, a leader of OUR Walmart, the organization of Walmart workers that has been fighting for better wages and hours at the retailer, in a statement. "We know that this wouldn't have happened without our work to stand together with hundreds of thousands of supporters to change the country's largest employer.”
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, agrees. “Walmart’s move shows the success of continued pressure by wage campaign groups that have been pressuring the company for many years,” he told The Atlantic. He said that Walmart is "buying peace" from its low-pay critics with the move.
It's important to highlight the people who put their bodies on the line in front of Walmart stores around the country over the years in order to get the company to at least move this incremental step. Conservative pundits are spinning the Walmart move as a validation that the free market will move corporations to do the right thing at the right time. Actually, the "free market" – or at least the stock market – gave the move a harsh negative judgement, with the stock price dropping more than 3 percent by the end of Thursday's trading.
That kind of verdict is a powerful motivator to CEOs to run their businesses just as Walmart has – pay wages so low that full-time workers have to apply for food assistance and other aid, make hours so limited that workers need a second job, but make just-in-time shifts so unpredictable that workers can't schedule that second job – or much else. It's a business practice that has given the Walton family that controls Walmart a fortune equal to the wealth held by the bottom 42 percent of Americans, wealth accumulation made possible only by the impoverishment of literally millions of rank-and-file workers – not just those who work for Walmart directly but the millions of others who have lost their jobs or had their wages reduced because of predatory business practices that killed off competitors or pushed supply chains off our shores and into low-wage countries overseas.
There are a few "conscious capitalists" who run their businesses differently, paying the workers well and reaping their reward through a more engaged and productive workforce that, in turn, leaves customers more satisfied. But especially if they are a publicly traded company, even they have powerful winds to contend with in the form of impatient stockholders – the profile that Bloomberg News published Thursday of The Container Store at the same time it was announcing the Walmart news shows the challenges.
Given those forces, there is only one countervailing force that is up to the challenge of ensuring that workers reap the rewards of their work, in contrast to the upward distribution of wealth that we have seen the past three decades. That is continued mobilization by workers to press for higher wages, humane benefits and scheduling, fair taxation and a level playing field that serves as a springboard for a race to the top for workers rather than a slide to the bottom.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who by his own description "disdained unions as bringing corrupting, nepotism and rigid work rules" responsible for "impeding economic growth," had to acknowledge in a column Thursday that, "I was wrong" – and that we must have empowered workers to rebalance the scales and ensure hat workers get their due.
Whatever you think of what Kristof's examples of "silly work rules" and union excesses, even Kristof had to acknowledge that "unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity" as well as such policies as a higher minimum wage. Plus, he adds, the reality is "the worst abuses by far haven't been in the union shop but in the corporate suite":
"One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations."
If only the conservative ideologues who have taken control of the Congress got the same message. Instead of recognizing what Kristof sees, Republicans are making moves such passing legislation to weaken the National Labor Relations Board, outraged that the agency is once again fighting for workers rather than being a tool to defend corporate power.
That's among a long list of pro-worker policies that the Republicans in Congress have blocked, from an increase in the minimum wage to mandates for paid family and sick leave, and the list of tax incentives for CEOs to shift jobs overseas and put more money into bonuses (that are tax-deductible) and stock buybacks rather than invest in workers.
The good news is that the Walmart workers and labor organizers who have campaigned for years against this corporate behemoth have shown us a glimmer of what is possible. There are many more fights yet to be won, but the momentum is beginning to shift, and even the political discourse on the right has had to accommodate the shift. Workers can win in the end of we sustain the pressure.