Once upon a time, I asked myself, “What the heck kind of a city doesn’t have a Walmart?” Having grown up in a small town, one that might as well have been any of the small towns hugging the freeways up and down California, inviting the constant passerby with tall and luminous fast food signs, I was really confused at the lack of a Walmart in Santa Barbara. My tunnel-like focus on an “I want it now, and I want it cheap” worldview had me thinking that places like Walmart were necessary to American society.
This week, candid photos taken in a Canton, Ohio Walmart went viral and shed light on why places like Santa Barbara are so opposed to welcoming the big-box department store. The photo captured a canned food donation box marked specifically to aid Walmart workers from that branch, who had found themselves struggling and in need this Thanksgiving season. The remarkable thing is that these workers in need will certainly be working on Thanksgiving, with the global retail powerhouse starting their Black Friday madness at 6 p.m. the night before this holiday season. And making low wages means you have to work a lot, Thanksgiving included. Add to that our current stagnate minimum wage, and to get by, you must certainly work two jobs. Walmart, unfortunately, has policies banning additional employment if the particular employer directly competes with the store; too bad Walmart sells just about everything under the sun. With your one Walmart job, you’ll be lucky to work enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits, since Walmart only assigns you a few hours shy of the hourly requirement. This sort of employment model — low wages, high turnover, the idea of temporary employment — has become extremely normalized in American society and has eroded away any sense of faith we had for our once promised high standard of living.
As Walmart becomes the standard for our 21st century economy, we have to realize that we have also accepted subsidizing every attempt that the company has used to take advantage of the declining state of the American worker since the 1970s. With all of that critical talk about President Obama being a “socialist” a few years back, it amazes me that the term has never been applied to Walmart. We, as a society of citizens contributing taxes for the rights and benefits to live in a civil society, are paying for the entire class of people that Walmart is choosing to exploit. And the company thrives off of our lack of big-picture thinking. The Walton family incidentally has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America combined.
It’s obvious that there’s something wrong with that. Being rich or successful isn’t a crime, but unless we are willing to acknowledge that the same economic system that produces our nation’s awesome wealth is also accountable for our awful poverty, we can never effectively address the latter. The system being perpetuated by Walmart and the low-wage retailers that emulate it must be regulated in a manner that is beneficial to society as a whole. If we are going to pat the city of Santa Barbara on the back for not fully ceding to this retail giant, we must take notice of Washington D.C. who recently attempted to enforce a living-wage requirement for companies fitting the Walmart frame. The mayor of the city unfortunately vetoed the bill after the company threatened to pull plans for erecting the city’s first branches.
The clamping down on the progression of worker benefits in the fastest growing sector of the economy is a constant narrative in the history of Walmart. In the year 2000, 10 meat cutters in a Jacksonville, Florida Walmart Supercenter voted to unionize and join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the first time anyone had ever successfully formed a union in Walmart’s entire 50-year existence. A few days later, the corporation announced that it was ending its meat-cutting services in all 180 Supercenters, starting with Jacksonville. Of course Walmart denied this was a reaction to the recent vote and appeared perfectly fine with the fact they were losing all these employees.
Unionization has gained terrible baggage over recent decades, but we must realize that historically organized labor in its most idealistic form is democracy in the workplace. Democracy — the principle that unimaginable amounts of people have died over, and justifiably, because if we do not have a voice, then what kind of society do we live in? Unions have been constantly the sole institutional support for American workers. During the time between World War II and the election of Ronald Reagan, the median income for the American worker rose while a third of the American workforce was in some sort of union; currently, the median earnings have stagnated for decades while union participation in the private sector dwells around a measly seven percent.
If we want to fix this problem, and to elect people that will create prosperity and stability for every American, we must obviously look for the candidates that support measures that would bring just that … measures that might even fix the Walmart problem. Those candidates rarely fall in between the two-party narratives though. The Mayor of DC that vetoed that living wage act was a Democrat. Only a week ago, college professor and former Occupy activist Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council. What makes her notable in terms of mainstream attention is her identification as a Socialist, that dirty word that got thrown at Obama again and again. But what makes her so great is how fresh and different she is from Obama. Her presence on the Seattle political scene has seen lawmakers acquiesce to her common sense demands of a higher standard of livings for the common Seattle resident, demands that legislatures in the one-party city of Seattle had once feared fighting for in the face of big business opposition.
It is clear that if we want to live in an emphatic and Democratic society that provides opportunities for all Americans, we must support those who stand for workers. For all the hoopla about hope and change in 2008, I believe true change will occur when we realize that this perverse “us vs. them” notion seen everywhere in the mainstream cultural landscape actually does nothing but corrupt our democracy. We can vote for the Socialist who aims to bring Walmart’s subsidized health care plan to all Americans. We can support the Walmart workers risking their employment status by striking alongside them this Black Friday. We just have to be brave enough to get out of the compartments and groupings we put each other in. It’s not like we’re Walmart or anything.
Mario Vasquez isn’t afraid of the big, bad capitalist wolf.