I spent a large part of my childhood in Arkansas, a state that is known primarily for two things - being the former home state of President Bill Clinton, and being the birthplace of the big-box behemoth Walmart. Walmart started as one store in the northwest corner of Arkansas in 1962. When I was a child in the 1980s it was still a regional business that had barely been heard of outside of the South. But in the 1990s, Walmart spread like wildfire throughout the country, so that there are now more than 4,200 Walmarts and Sam's Clubs in the US. (Click here for a fascinating animated gif tracking the opening of every Walmart in the US between 1962 and 2010). And the rise of Walmart helped pave the way for the proliferation of other big box stores such as Target, Home Depot, and Lowes.
These big box stores work on the straightforward business model of destroying their competition by doing everything they can to keep prices as low as possible. Characteristics like providing good customer service, selling quality products that last, and treating one's workers well are all sacrificed at these big box stores in the name of trying to drive prices down. And while the proliferation of this strategy may have helped increased access to basic products for people living in or near poverty, the impact of the spread of big box stores on wages, economic inequality, local economies, the environment, and society as a whole has been disastrous.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has compiled a lengthy list of studies documenting the deleterious impact that Walmart and other big box stores drive wages and benefits at existing stores in a community down, reduce overall employment and put local stores out of business, and increase poverty rates. One of the most shocking statistic from these studies is that wages and benefits are so low at Walmart that the company's 1.4 million US employees collect nearly $2.66 billion in public assistance (primarily food stamps and Medicaid). This from a company that, in fiscal year 2011, had $447 billion in sales and $15.7 billion in profits, and that is owned by a family - the Waltons - that had a net worth of $89.5 billion in 2010, which is the same amount of wealth as is held by the bottom 41.5% of all Americans combined. And one way they've managed to amass such wealth and corporate profit while keeping wages and benefits low is by aggressively, and allegedly illegally, working to keep employees from unionizing. As a result, not a single Walmart store in the US is unionized, and most other big box stores in the US are similarly non-union.
The good news is that big box stores do not have to be this way. For example, a recently released study from the non-partisan public policy organization Demos found that big box retailers could raise their wage floor to $25,000 per employee without significantly raising prices or impacting profits. Such a wage standard would raise more than 700,000 people out of poverty, create at least 100,000 new jobs, and increased gross domestic product by at least $11.8 billion. Other studies have found similar results. And retailers such as Costco have shown that they can be more than competitive while providing higher wages and benefits. For example, in 2006, Costco paid approximately 72% more on average than Sam's Club did, while providing health insurance to 82% of its employees and retirement plans to 91%. But Costco remained competitive in part because, by treating its workers better, it had far lower employee turnover and higher worker productivity.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, known as "Black Friday" because it is the biggest retail day of the year, provides a great opportunity for all of us to help improves the wages, benefits, and lives of people who work in big box stores by supporting the strikes that Walmart employees have planned for that day. Labor unrest at Walmart has escalated significantly since this past September, when workers at Walmart warehouses in California and Illinois walked off the job to protest poor working conditions and low wages. These worker actions were then followed by a growing number of strikes by Walmart associates at stores in Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and numerous other cities throughout the country. To continue pushing for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, Walmart employees and their allies are planning as many as 1,000 actions in stores throughout the country and online on Black Friday.
Let's help make sure the message of fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for employees of Walmart and other big box stores gets through by taking action on Black Friday and staying involved thereafter. Here are some steps you can take to help:
* Join one of the many planned protests throughout the country by searching for one near you at this website
* Help support a big box employee by donating to a fund to provide $50 grocery gift cards to people who are striking
* Support local businesses or stores such as Costco that are known to treat their employees well
* Spread the word by writing a letter to your local newspaper editor in favor of fairer wages, benefits, and working conditions at big box stores, and by sharing the video below of Walmart employees explaining why they are standing up for better treatment.