ROSEN: Thanksgiving at Walmart

Looking Left

Canned food drives are a common sight around Thanksgiving. The holiday asks us to evaluate all that we are thankful for in our lives, which, for some, includes the ability to indulge in a large meal of turkey and pumpkin pie. Since others are not so lucky as to be able to afford a Thanksgiving dinner, we pull together baskets of holiday-themed foods for them. Typically, the recipients of food drives are thought to be unemployed or homeless. This year however, Walmart employees in Canton, Ohio will be receiving canned food donations as well.

Diana Rosen_Karen TianOn Monday, bins labeled, “Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner,” appeared in an employee-only section of a Cleveland-area Walmart. A worker took a photo and sent it to the group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), and the photo was immediately circulated around the Internet. Many were shocked to learn that Walmart, this year’s number one Fortune 500 company, was paying its workers wages so low that they could not afford to put a Thanksgiving dinner on the table.

Walmart’s revenue was $443.9 billion in fiscal year 2012. And, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out last year, the net wealth of six members of Walmart’s founding family, the Waltons, is equal to the wealth of more than 40% of the American population. Yet, Walmart employees earn so little that they need a canned food drive. Clearly something doesn’t add up.

The company responded to the widespread criticism of the food drive by saying that it was executed solely at the individual store level and that it was only intended for those employees who had recently experienced hardships, such as a spouse who had become unemployed. No explanation was given for why that second piece of information was not included on the clearly labeled bins.

Additionally, while the canned food drive may have been specific to the Canton store, Walmart has a company-wide program called the “Associates in Critical Need Trust,” which asks employees to take payroll deductions to address the financial hardships of fellow workers. The existence of this program demonstrates that Walmart’s corporate management knows that they are not providing their workers with a living wage.

According to the research company IBISWorld, the average Walmart sales associate earns $8.81 an hour, or $15,576 a year at a full-time status, which at Walmart is only 34 hours per week. Many associates work part-time and are unable to secure more hours. Associates have also complained about poor health coverage and unpredictable work schedules that prevent them from securing additional employment.

OUR Walmart was formed in June 2011 with the mission of ensuring that every Walmart employee is treated with respect. The group calls for a minimum wage of $13 per hour and full-time employment for associates who desire it. Other requests include affordable health care, predictable scheduling and wages and benefits that guarantee that employees will not have to rely on government assistance.

By no means do Walmart’s labor practices affect their employees alone. A study released by Congressional Democrats earlier this year showed that just one Walmart in Wisconsin could cost taxpayers up to $900,000 in covering government assistance for underpaid workers.

OUR Walmart responded to these issues this time last year by leading a series of protests and strikes across the country on Black Friday. Many have credited these events with sparking the low-wage worker movement nationwide this year. Employees have walked out of a number of retail and fast food stores on one- and two-day strikes demanding a $15 hourly minimum wage, and many have made substantial gains.

Black Friday is a notoriously horrible workday for employees of stores like Walmart. It only gets worse each year as the sales start earlier and earlier — a Target near New Haven is having its workers show up at 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving to open up the store. Preventing employees from enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday while still maintaining unreasonably low wages is an act of complete disrespect.

Once again, OUR Walmart is planning a series of protests for Black Friday. They expect them to be even larger than last year’s, as more employees have signed up to join the group. I stood outside with them in the cold last year, and I have every intention of doing so again. Walmart employees, and low-wage workers around the country, deserve to be paid a living wage. They’re fighting an uphill battle against some of the most powerful entities in the world, and they need all the support they can get.

Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at diana.rosen@yale.edu.

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