Inside Story Americas

Are US corporations exploiting their workers?

We ask if American workers are being punished for the bad business practices of their bosses.
Last Modified: 21 Nov 2012 14:27

"You can’t strike to demand [union] recognition – this is the so-called Unlawful Objective. You can strike to protest any kind of employment condition that you deem to be unfair or employment retaliation. The Supreme Court has been loath to equate, for the past half century, a variety of kinds of picketing including this with the first amendment. The general view is that picketing is speech plus [action]."

- William Gould, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board

The day after Thanksgiving is one of the biggest shopping days in the US and it is integral to the annual plans of many retailers. But for the world's largest retail company the name "Black Friday" has taken on new meaning.

Staff at Walmart are threatening to culminate weeks of individual short stoppages around the country with a grand day of action this Friday. They are angry about a range of issues, including what they say is daily disrespectful treatment by managers, low wages and alleged retaliation by the company against workers who speak out against abuses.

Now, Walmart has asked the US National Labor Relations Board to place an injunction against the action. Attempting to use US labour law, the company argues that the strike is illegal because staff are simply protesting against Walmart's refusal to allow union membership and not about unfair working conditions.

Mike Wilson, a campaign organiser with Jobs with Justice, a coalition of national labour organisations, says: "Workers have been facing cutbacks in their health insurance, their hours are being cut, their schedules are never consistent. And, in addition to that, as they say to Walmart 'this needs to change, we need to get paid fairly, we need to have consistent schedules', Walmart has responded by firing workers who have stood up and holding meetings with the intent to intimidate."

"I think the position of workers has deteriorated markedly in the last 30 years. We are a very productive country, we have a rising GDP – give or take a recession or two – but in general we are much wealthier than we were 30 years ago. But the productivity gains are not shared as they were in the past. There is very little opportunity with the weakness of the labour movement, very little opportunity for workers to participate in the growing wealth of the economy."

- Eileen Appelbaum, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research

But Walmart staff are not the only workers facing pressure from management. Hostess Brands Inc., the company that makes a range of popular confectionary favourites such as Twinkies, is blaming the bakers' union for bringing it to the verge of bankruptcy.

But others argue the firm is in a mess of its own management's making and its financial troubles are a result of the short-term profit seeking practices of private equity firms and huge pay rises for company executives.

Even as the company attempted to force its workers to accept further concessions on pay and conditions, the CEO awarded himself a 300 per cent pay rise.

So, are workers being unfairly blamed for bad business practices?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses this with guests: William Gould, the former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under Bill Clinton; Mike Elk, a labour journalist for In These Times; and Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.


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