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Walmart's Exploitation Is Nothing New, So What Made Workers Finally Fight Back?

The nation's largest employer has long been the Holy Grail for labor organizers, seemingly impossible to organize -- until now.

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It was one of the first companies to really understand -- and build its business strategy around -- the specific skills of women workers, who adapted well to the service industry and could be paid little. The same sorts of “people skills” that women had long been expected to exemplify through unpaid domestic work were being recognized as valuable by Walmart, which offered female employees the homey promise that they were important members of Walmart’s corporate “family.” Trading on this emotional language, the company could offer women low wages and still retain their loyalty, as Moreton wrote, by framing their jobs as an extension of the evangelical “family values” that they held dear. As a service employer, Moreton told RD, Walmart learned that paying public obeisance to the value of “service” -- a concept transplanted neatly from Christian good works to working hard in the checkout line -- made good business sense. 

“Everyone wants to feel that what’s important to them can be serviced in their labor,” Moreton said. Walmart, she noted, “managed very cannily” to allow workers to feel that their values were being respected, so that they could get away without providing for other needs -- like a living wage.  

Low wages and few benefits, then, were an integral part of the company’s business model from the beginning. But a show of respect for the workers was part of the deal, part of what made them loyal -- and hard to organize into traditional unions.

But then even this uneasy balance began to unravel for some.

Janet Sparks, a member of OUR Walmart from Baker, La., started working at Walmart in 2005. She told RD, “To me, Mr. and Mrs. Walton, they had their Christian beliefs and I truly believed they had done great things for associates.” The company had worked with single mothers on their scheduling, Sparks explained, and made sure that the workers had enough hours to pay their bills. 

But in the seven years since, she’s felt a change within the company -- something she attributes to the 2007 death of Helen Walton, the wife of founder Sam. At the Pennsylvania store where she worked at the time, the workers were switched from a set schedule to “optimized” scheduling, done by computer according to the previous year’s sales on that day. As a result employees saw their hours cut and their wages capped, which meant no more raises, ever, even for longtime employees. “It just seemed to change from associate-friendly and family-friendly to more corporate-friendly,” she explained. “They set goals up for us to meet that we can’t possibly meet, then people get written up for things they can’t possibly accomplish.”

In 2010, she was one of the associates invited to the Walmart shareholders’ meeting, where she attended presentations on the great things the company said it was doing, for women, or against hunger, while its workers weren’t making enough to pay their bills and were subjected to unpredictable scheduling. She was shocked when an executive wanted to close the meeting with his favorite verse of Scripture: Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”  

For her, that moment of disconnect between the Christian values the executives professed to uphold and the reality she experienced at work was the last straw. “Right there I started praying for the Lord to expose these things in Walmart.”

Not Supposed to Live in Poverty

Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice, who has worked for some 25 years as an advocate for workers within religious communities, told RD that one of the top questions she’s heard over her career is about Walmart. “People understand that the way Walmart treats its workers is really setting the tone for the nation,” she said. “It’s certainly setting the tone for retail workers.”