Sunday, December 2, 2012
Did the Revolution Begin At Walmart?
On black Friday, the biggest day of the year for America's retailers, a small number of Walmart employees walked off the job. They wanted better wages, more hours, better working conditions, medical benefits, and the right to unionize. Their numbers were small, the public crossed their lines, and Walmart had a record day. (At least according to Walmart management.) Well, it's a start.
This week, a number of fast food workers in New York City walked off the job for a day. The employers were McDonald's, Wendy's, Dominos, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell. In New York, the average wage of a fast food employee is a little under $9 an hour. Most get no benefits, and many have their hours limited to 20 or 30 hours a week. In New York City, as in most of the country, that's poverty wages. Unlike many other parts of the country, there aren't many low cost housing alternatives in New York City. They come to work sick, because they can't afford to take a day off, let alone pay for health care. Many would make the argument that fast food is a low wage job because it doesn't take a college education, or any difficult to master skills. Perhaps, but it's also true that fast food companies are some of the most profitable business in the world. That profit is made on the back of low wage workers. In NYC, workers are asking for $15 an hour, medical, and forty hour weeks. The big chains can afford it, without significantly raising prices, and still make a very healthy return.
The cult of Steve Jobs. The late Apple exec has been held up as the great American success story. Both political parties hold him up as an example of the perfect CEO. Let's look at the record. Jobs outsourced manufacturing to Foxxcon, actually Hon Hai Precision Co, Ltd. of Taiwan. His great innovation was in finding a manufacturing partner willing to pioneer a new form of industrial slavery at it's mainland Chinese plants. The typical American Apple employee is an Apple Store worker, who makes around $10 an hour, toils at irregular hours that doesn't allow for a decent standard of living, and doesn't get medical benefits. Mostly young, with less to loose than a typical Walmart worker, it's time for the Apple Store Geniuses to hit the street, picket signs in hand.
Building a union and fighting for labor rights is not easy. A quick glance at labor history shows years of struggle and sacrifice. We gave up our union base along with our manufacturing base when we changed our tax structure to favor financial services rather than manufacturing. But it is a fight worth waging. If not, we'll end up living under Steve Job's new industrial slavery. It won't just be in China.