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‘Black Friday’ protests signify potential sea change for Walmart, labour

By in Opinions
Occupy Wall Street showed solidarity with striking Walmart workers on Black Friday.

On Nov. 23, hundreds of Walmart workers in 46 U.S. states walked off the job. Protesters joined the employees and supported their demands for living wages, an end to on-the-job sexual harassment and safe working conditions, among other things.

The “Black Friday” protests are so named because Nov. 23 is the infamous post-American-Thanksgiving shopping day often hailed as the biggest day of the year for retailers.

The protests are the latest and most prominent in an ongoing series of strikes against the big-box retailer that began about five months ago when guest workers at a Walmart subcontractor went on strike because they said they were working “up to 24 consecutive hours, were paid less than 60 per cent of minimum wage and lived in vermin-infested trailers on company property,” according to a piece by Josh Eidelson.

Walmart has refused responsibility for its subcontractors and warehouse employees, despite its ownership of the warehouse buildings those employees work at.

Walmart, the 16th-largest corporation in the world and the world’s largest private employer, is notorious for its union-busting tactics. This is the first time retail employees have gone on strike in the company’s 50-year history, which in and of itself makes the movement notable.

In a sign of how powerful Walmart considers the movement, the company went to the National Labour Relations Board in an effort to have the protests pre-emptively banned.

It is important to follow these protests whether we live in America or in Canada, where Walmart workers are treated significantly better. (I can attest to that on an anecdotal level, since I worked for one briefly in high school; fluorescent lighting and angry bargain-hunters aside, there was no horrific treatment to speak of.)

The reason Canadians should follow these protests, beyond the fact that they are important news, is that they highlight what a dramatic difference a high union presence makes in a country. A country with a significant union presence will have a more employee-friendly work culture than one with a smaller union presence. This works to the benefit of workers both represented by unions and not.

If the United Food and Commercial Workers union has successfully lobbied for its workers to be allowed bandages should they injure themselves, to use an example from a Walmart warehouse employee, it’s unlikely nearby employers will be able to get away with refusing that basic necessity. But in places where unionization is low (and especially in companies with no union presence), that kind of behaviour can continue unchallenged. Any worker who causes a fuss can be terminated and replaced.

In Canada, 16 per cent of private-sector employees are unionized (compared to 71 per cent in the public sector), and while that number is low, only seven per cent of private-sector American employees are union members.

The effects of this disparity can be seen in everything from Canadian Walmart workers seeming much happier with their employer to the vast difference in minimum wages. Canadian minimum wages range between $9.50 and $11.00 per hour while American minimum wages vary from $5.15 in Wyoming to $9.04 in Washington. The highest minimum wage in the entire United States is lower than the lowest minimum wage in Canada, which is set to go up on Dec. 1 to $10.

If the Walmart workers’ protests are successful — in allowing employees to unionize, if they wish, or in forcing their bosses to the table to discuss fairer treatment for their employees — it will be a dramatic departure from the past 50 years in which Walmart has been able to dictate terms to its employees, who have had to silently agree at the risk of termination.

Walmart is right to be scared, and the whole world should be watching.

Photo: Marcus Gratsch

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