Guest Post by author and MacArthur Foundation Chair in History at UC Santa Barbara, Nelson Lichtenstein.
As our consumer-driven economy struggles to regain lost ground, Walmart—the big-box retailer notorious for driving down wages and labor standards wherever it goes—is moving forward with plans to open stores in urban centers nationwide. What could the company’s expanded presence mean for workers and our communities?
Currently, Walmart uses its position in the economy to push low-road work that offers its associates no hope of a career. With such low pay and meager benefits, many Walmart employees who enjoy their job simply can’t afford to stay at the company. Career advancement is limited because only a few managerial positions exist at each store.
It’s no wonder turnover at Walmart averages 40 percent.
But there is another way. Within the retail giant’s own supply chain, employees at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina package much of the meat that customers find on Walmart’s shelves. These workers recently organized a union and now, with the economic security afforded by sustainable pay and benefits, workers at Smithfield envision a long-term future with the company.
Walmart can make hourly careers possible for its own associates by improving the basic tenants of work: predictable hours, affordable benefits, and a pay system that rewards experience and commitment. Walmart must also respect the rights of its associates to form a union, be paid for all hours worked, and expect a workplace free of discriminatory practices.
This would make a real career possible for hourly workers and hardly make a dent in the company’s everyday low prices, as a new study released in April by the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated. If Walmart paid all of its U.S. associates a livable wage—even assuming the company passed the entire cost of this raise on to consumers—it would cost shoppers less than half a pack of gum per shopping trip
We know Walmart has the means to improve the work and livelihoods of its 1.4 million associates working in the United States. And history shows us that, as the industry leader, better working conditions at Walmart will raise the floor for workers across the retail sector.
Low prices are guaranteed when Walmart enters new markets, but the question remains: Will the company continue its trademark low wages or offer a real career path for its associates?
Nelson Lichtenstein is the MacArthur Foundation Chair in History at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. His report “Creating Hourly Careers: A New Vision for Walmart and the Country,” coauthored by Erin Johansson, was recently released by American Rights at Work.