The Walmart working class

Arun Gupta

Abstract


Walmart accounts for about 13 per cent of the $2.53 trillion US retail market, and 140 million Americans shop at Walmart weekly, more people than voted for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined in 2012. It employs almost 1 per cent of the US workforce with 1.3 million workers, and claims another 3 million US jobs are dependent on it. At 3 per cent of US GDP ($466 billion in fiscal year 2013), its net sales were on par with GM’s postwar peak. Almost 80 per cent of its $27.8 billion in operating profits came from domestic sales ($274.5 billion, plus $56.4 billion for over 600 Sam’s Club outlets). In 2007 the Walmart family wealth was greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 30 per cent of American families, and by 2010 it had grown to more than 41.5 per cent of all families, making Walmart an unambiguous measure of class polarization in US society. Walmart aims to offer the lowest-priced goods, relying on high volume to compensate for razor-thin margins, so from the start its model has been to maximize labour productivity by minimizing pay, benefits and workplace rights. This process has intensified during the economic downturn that began in 2007 as Walmart has cut an average of 57 employees per US outlet. Even as same-store sales have stagnated since 2008, it is increasing profits by cutting staff and benefits, forcing the remaining workers to speed up their work pace through strict time-management software. Internal Walmart memos reveal poorly stocked stores and for six years it has been ‘placed last among department and discount stores in the American Customer Satisfaction Index’. Indeed, Walmart may no longer be able to maintain a significant price advantage over other grocery stores and discount retailers and is being pressured by Amazon in e-commerce. Walmart is a victim of its own success as it has eliminated ‘a raft of salesmen, jobbers and other supplychain middlemen, squeezed the manufacturers by shifting every imaginable cost, risk, and penalty onto their books, and taught the entire retail world how the bar code and data warehouse could finally put real money on the bottom line’.4 To add just 24 full-time employees per US store would cost it $2.1 billion, or 10 per cent of its domestic profits.

This is the context in which a new struggle by Walmart workers – the national campaign led by Organization United for Respect (OUR Walmart) and the Chicago-based Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and its organizing arm, the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee (WWOC) – has emerged since 2009. It was very much on the minds of the eleven Walmart retail and warehouse workers with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in May and June 2013. A burning question before the left today is whether these campaigns in the low-wage sectors can revitalize the American labour movement, especially after the Occupy Wall Street movement injected class politics back into popular discourse with talk of the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent.

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