I have been following with interest the recent attempts to bring pressure to bear on Walmart, the world's largest and most hideous retailer, to pay a living wage. It is hard to understate how difficult it is to organize or strike against a company this big and this committed to stopping even a hint of unionization. This is particularly true when your work force is so economically vulnerable to begin with. (Dailykos has had excellent coverage of this movement.)
A recent Demos study, which has been getting a great deal of attention, (especially on Melissa Harris Perry's excellent weekend show on MSNBC) shows the degree to which Walmart and other imitators in the retail market are holding back the American economy with their incredibly meager wages. (Harris Perry and Chris Hayes are doing incredibly good work and put the bullshit Sunday talking shows to shame. What a better place the world would be if Joe Scarborough and his dumbass band of white boys were sent elsewhere and Hayes and Harris Perry could divide up that slot.) Basically, if Walmart would pay its average workers $25,000 a year instead of the woeful $16,000 a year that many of them make, there would be a huge boon to the economy. Price increases resulting from these wage increases would likely be minimal. It might put a small dent in the fortunes of the Walmart heirs, who currently hold down positions 6, 7, 8, and 9 of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and between them hold accumulated wealth valued at $107 billion dollars. (This is a classic illustration of why the bottom 50% of Americans own 1.1% of total wealth, while the top 1% hold a staggering 34.5% of the nation's wealth.)
Yglesias had an interesting piece the other day about the difficulty of organizing Walmart today compared to the success of the United Auto Workers in organizing GM back in the 1930s, which wasn't, by the way, attributable to GM being more enlightened than Walmart. The UAW was able, by illegally occupying GM's Flint Michigan plant, to bring GM's production to a halt. The UAW also had important political allies in Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan (future Supreme Court justice) and Franklin Roosevelt. They also acted in a culture in which labor militancy was an every day thing and in which radical economic views were relatively common place. Walmart has no single pressure point that can be attacked. It can close stores and move them more or less at will, it can reconfigure its supply chains, and it can take advantage of its enormous heft and flexibility to devise work-arounds against strikes.
Yglesias also correctly raises the fact that unions now have treasuries, employees, members at other employers to service, and institutional interests that discourage them from engaging in extra-legal tactics that could result in large judgments being entered against them. This is one of the frustrations some times in advising unions -- which by definition should be militant organizations -- in tactics. It is very difficult as a lawyer to feel comfortable green-lighting tactics that might result in significant legal liability against your client. (One small quibble with Yglesias -- he mentions pension plans as a reason that unions avoid exra-legal tactics -- it should be noted that pension plans are separate and distinct legal entities that are not subject to creditor claims. A small point, but one that hits me where I live.)
The struggle against Walmart is really at the heart of trying to create a different kind of America. It strikes me as a hugely uphill battle, but one we should try and support wholeheartedly.
Update: Not too crazy about post by Ezra -- it seems to me obvious that the destructive impact of Walmart -- on wages, on worker power, on small retailers and traditional downtowns, vastly exceeds the benefits of cheaper food. I vastly prefer this post by Kathy Geier pointing out that other retailers like Costco and Trader Joe's have succeeded while taking a very different approach to employees.