Over the past thirty years, the US economy has experienced a steady decline in the proportion of the labor force working in the manufacturing sector. Today a large proportion of the labor force works in low wage retail trade under insecure and precarious employment conditions.
No single organization represents this shift more completely than Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sells goods manufactured offshore, largely in China, and it operates the most aggressive cost-cutting logistics supply chain moving goods from the distant point of production to the national point of consumption.
The low prices for which Wal-Mart is best known exact a high cost on the cheap and highly exploited factory labor in other countries. In the United States the workers who move and sell the products work at low wages under insecure working conditions. This is what makes those everyday low prices possible.
As the largest private employer in the United States, Wal-Mart sets the labor market standard for compensation and working conditions across the board. It is, therefore, ground zero for any labor strategy to improve wages and working conditions for all workers in the United States.
It has been a long time coming, but there are signs that labor is now starting to flex its muscle. Two recent events are particularly significant.
First, workers in two Wal-Mart warehouse facilities have walked out or gone on strike over the past month. Warehouse and distribution center work is a growing employment sector associated with the Wal-Mart supply chain, but minimum wages, temporary work, and abusive management practices have prompted the action by workers. Warehouse Workers United is now attempting to organize this labor force.
Second, following the action by the warehouse workers, the Wal-Mart workers association, OUR Wal-Mart, has staged a series of nation-wide walkouts and protests by the retail workers demanding an improvement in working conditions.
The leading authority on the political economy of Wal-Mart, Nelson Lichtenstein, offers some insights on the current upsurge by Wal-Mart workers and its significance.
There is a lot of talk during this campaign season about jobs and the middle class. There needs to be much more talk about the quality of jobs and the working class, and the conditions for those who labor in the low wage sectors of our economy. But there will be no improvement for these workers without an organized effort and the establishment of “countervailing power” against the Wal-Mart behemoth.