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On Black Friday workers of Walmart unite

The corporate wealth is out of reach for its workers.

Last updated: 29 Nov 2013 10:38
Rose Aguilar

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.
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Walmart workers are to strike for higher wages [Reuters]

Walmart, the United States' largest private employer with 1.3 million workers, is in major crisis mode. The brave Walmart workers, who've been putting their jobs on the line and getting arrested for over a year to demand an end to illegal retaliation for speaking out, full-time work for those who want it, and a living wage, are hoping to make history yet again on Black Friday - the busiest shopping day of the year in the US - by striking, protesting, and holding rallies at 1,500 stores across the country. In addition to major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia, actions are also planned in Granbury, Texas, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Elk City, Oklahoma, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

To make matters worse for a corporation that brought in $17bn in profits last year, a store in northeast Ohio is receiving widespread negative publicity in the national media for holding a food drive for workers who can't afford Thanksgiving dinner. A sign in the employee lounge read, "Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner." In other words, let's ask our poorly paid employees to bring in cans of food so other poorly paid employees can afford to eat.

The group Making Change at Walmart is running a television ad about the food drive in Washington DC, and Bentonville, AR, home to Walmart's headquarters. In it, Martha Sellers says, "All of your sales floor associates and cashiers are struggling to make a living. When is enough enough?" It also shows talking heads on television looking dumbfounded about the fact that far too many workers don't earn enough to make ends meet. Over 825,000 workers make less than $25,000 a year. Those who want full-time work say they can't get it and rarely know what their schedule will be from week to week.

Walmart CEO Michael Duke's annual $35m salary gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in a year.

The average worker makes $8.81 an hour or $17,000 a year, forcing many to rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs to make ends meet. John Paul Ashton, a 31-year-old Washington-based Walmart maintenance worker who makes $20,000 a year, has no choice but to rely on food stamps to put food on the table. Patricia Locks, a 48-year-old single mom who has worked at Walmart for 11 years in the Seattle, Washington area, barely makes $19,000 a year. She lives in low-income housing, relies on food banks and food stamps to feed her teenage daughter, and can't afford health insurance.

And all they are asking for is $25,000 a year and the chance to work full-time. Walmart CEO Michael Duke's annual $35m salary gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in a year. He just announced plans to step down. The combined wealth of the Walton family's six heirs to Walmart's enormous fortune is now worth more than $93bn. They have more money than nearly half of all American households. And yet, their greedy business practices cost taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies.

A May congressional report prepared for the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce looks at the cost of Walmart's low wages on taxpayers. It found that a 300-employee Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $900,000 to $1.75m a year in public assistance programs. Wisconsin has 100 Walmarts, 75 are Supercenters. Where are the conservatives obsessed with so-called entitlements and socialism when you need them?

Back in 2004, a UC Berkeley Institute for Industrial Relations study found that California taxpayers spend $86m a year providing healthcare and other public assistance to the state's 44,000 Walmart employees. And according to Walmart Subsidy Watch, a website run by Good Jobs First, Walmart has received more than $1.2bn in tax breaks, land deals, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing, and grants from state and local governments across the country. Academics and researchers have been issuing these reports for years, but only now is the information becoming widely disseminated and discussed, thanks to the worker's actions.

Because they are not unionized, many are paying a heavy price for speaking out. According to OURWalmart, 80 employees have been fired for engaging in civil disobedience. Employees who were illegally fired for speaking out have spent the past few days in freezing weather outside Walmart's corporate office in Bentonville, Arkansas calling on executives to pay a living wage and end the retaliation. The National Labor Relations Board is pursuing charges against the company for illegally firing and disciplining more than 117 workers, including many who went on strike last June. It found that Walmart stores in 14 states across the country unlawfully threatened, disciplined, or terminated employees for engaging in legally protected strikes and protests. The Nation's Lee Fang is out with a report about Joseph Kefauver, a former Walmart executive who is now running a smear campaign against Black Friday activists through his government relations firm Parquet Public Affairs.

Find a protest in your area and support these workers. As Patricia Locks says, "No one who works for one of the world's largest and wealthiest companies should have to live like this. I don't think it's asking too much to earn enough so I don't have to rely on food banks and other assistance to survive."

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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