By Doug Porter
Years of growing inequality have taken their toll on low-wage workers over several decades even as workplace productivity has increased. A minimum-wage income in 1968 was higher than the poverty line for a family of two adults and one child. Even into the 1980s the minimum wage was high enough to lift a single parent over the federal poverty line. Today’s minimum wage, however, is not enough for single parents to reach even the most basic threshold of adequate living standards.
The latest census figures show 46.2 million people living in poverty in the US. Companies that pay low wages leave their employees no choice but to rely on public assistance programs like food stamps, Medicare or the earned income tax credit. So, in effect, these companies are being subsidized by government.
Today CEOs in the country’s S&P 500 companies make, on average, 319 times more than the average American worker. Back in the 1970s, that ratio was 30 to 1. Walmart CEO Mike Duke makes better than a thousand times more than the median worker pay at the one of his stores.
So it’s little wonder than 47% of Walmart employees are less than thrilled about their jobs. And despite a workplace environment where many employees are pitted against each other in a desperate struggle for survival, here are signs of unrest that are increasing around the country.
With annual revenue approaching $450 billion and a global workforce of more than 2 million, its no surprise that Walmart has long been a target of labor advocates; not only because of its status as the world’s largest employer but also due to persisting claims of worker mistreatment.
The San Diego Walmart Strike Fund
Here in San Diego, as is true elsewhere, unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE! have taken up the causes of low wage employees, even when there is no actual organizing campaign going on.
Next Friday, May 17th the Coalition for Community and Labor Solidarity is hosting a fundraiser, urging the public to donate to a Walmart Strike Fund. Venanzi Luna and Evelin Cruz, who made history by leading the first strike against Walmart in October 2012 will speak, along with a program of music and poetry. The event is scheduled for 6:30 at the UFCW Local 135 Building (2001 Camino Del Rio South). Go here for more information.
I’m bringing this event up because of its place in the larger picture. Members of the labor group OUR Walmart have announced a plan to send civil rights movement–style caravans of workers from around country to converge at the retail giant’s June 7th annual shareholder meeting in Arkansas. Caravans will be leaving from locations around the country, stopping to pick up supporters and holding meetings with community activists along the way.
Los Angeles Walmart worker Tsehai Almaz told The Nation that, after visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and meeting with local clergy, she and other OUR Walmart leaders were inspired to follow the example of the 1961 freedom riders.
“I feel like we’re facing many of the same issues,” said Almaz, “even though it’s not necessarily about race—this time it’s about respect. And being able to feed our families, and having good working conditions.” Almaz, a support manager who’s worked for the company for about a year, said that she was driven to join the campaign after she and several co-workers were needlessly injured in a rash of workplace accidents in her store.
Fast Food Isn’t So Fast in Detroit Today
Customers pulling up the McDonald’s store at 10400 Gratiot Avenue in Detroit today won’t be getting much in the way of a meal. A walkout by twenty workers has prevented the store from operating. Strikebreakers brought in by management chose to join the strike instead.
This action is part of a city-wide effort in the Motor City. Sixty fast food locations are expected to be impacted by the walk-out, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Little Caesar’s, and Popeye’s locations.
The Detroit actions follow walkouts in St. Louis, Chicago and New York and are part of a campaign that includes community groups along with the Service Employees International Union. Participants are demanding a raise to $15 an hour and the chance to form a union without intimidation.
Organizers say that over a hundred workers joined the St. Louis strike between Wednesday and Thursday. That included a group of Jimmy John’s workers who alleged that management humiliated them by requiring them to hold up signs in public with messages including “I made 3 wrong sandwiches today” and “I was more than 13 seconds in the drive thru.” “Sometimes I walk for more than an hour just to save my train fare so I can spend it on Ramen noodles,” St. Louis Chipotle worker Patrick Leeper said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “I can’t even think about groceries.”
Fast food jobs are a growing portion of our economy, and fast food-like conditions are proliferating in other sectors as well. Organizers say the fast food industry now employs twice as many Detroit-area workers as the city’s iconic auto industry. These strikes also come at a moment of existential crisis for the labor movement, a sobering reality that was brought into sharp relief in December whenMichigan, arguably the birthplace of modern US private sector unionism, became the country’s latest “Right to Work” state.
Along with a shared significant supporter – SEIU – the campaigns in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit have apparent strategies in common. Rather than waiting until they’ve built support from a majority of a store’s or company’s workers, they stage actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers. Rather than publicly identifying the campaign and its organizers with a single international union, these union-funded efforts turn to allied community groups to spearhead organizing. Rather than training all their resources on a single company, they organize against all of the industry’s players at once. And – faced with legal and economic assaults that have weakened the strike weapon – these campaigns mount one-day work stoppages that are carefully tailored to maximize attention and minimize, but not eliminate, the risk that workers will lose their jobs.
Bangladesh Tragedy Just Keeps Getting Worse
From the Associated Press today:
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Rescue workers in Bangladesh freed a woman buried for 17 days inside a prayer room in the wreckage of a collapsed garment factory building. The amazing rescue took place Friday as the death toll from the disaster raced past 1,000, making it one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.
Meanwhile, in John Galt’s Texas
From the New York Times we learn that, despite the explosion in West Texas, ‘freedom’ lives on in the Lone Star State:
Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.
As federal investigators sift through the rubble at the West Fertilizer Company plant seeking clues about the April 17 blast that killed at least 14 people and injured roughly 200 others, some here argue that Texas’ culture itself contributed to the calamity.
Here in ‘Taxifornia’…
You can expect the ‘free market’ types to be squealing like stuck pigs over the next few weeks. Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez has introduced Assembly Bill 880. As part of California’s health care overhaul, the bill calls for fining large employers if the wages they pay are not high enough to keep workers off Medi-Cal rolls. Small and mid-size businesses would be exempted from the provisions of the law.
The legislation was prompted by a new report from the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research projecting that as many as 380,000 workers for big companies will end up on the state’s Medi-Cal program by 2019. This will be on top of the quarter-million California workers in big corporations that are paid so little they’ve ended up on taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal. This is known as the ‘Walmart loophole’.
In addition to removing the incentive for companies to cut hours and wages just to get around the Affordable Care Act, AB 880 puts the revenues generated by the penalty into a special fund that can only be used for health care, thereby it increasing access to medical services for low-income Californians.
Not surprisingly, the law is enthusiastically supported by the California Labor Federation and United Food and Commercial Workers.
Got Those Tax Evasion Blues?
Worried about having to pay taxes on the cash you’ve got stashed in those offshore bank accounts? Fear not, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) has got your back.
The law, called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, was passed in 2010 and is supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2014. It requires foreign financial institutions to report information about Americans with accounts worth more than $50,000 to the IRS. Firms that don’t comply will be fined.
Tax policy watch dogs say the FATCA is essential to rooting out tax cheats. “The increased bilateral exchange of taxpayer information that…[is] crucial to cleaning up the worldwide shadow financial system,” Heather Lowe, director of government affairs for the advocacy organization Global Financial Integrity told Accounting Today earlier this month. “[F]oreign financial institutions should not harbor the illicit assets of U.S. tax evaders.”
But Paul’s bill to weaken the law was immediately hailed as “heroic” by the biggest independent financial advisory firm in the world. In an email press release from the deVere group, chief executive Nigel Green said, “Senator Paul’s heroic stance against this toxic, economy-damaging tax act is a landmark moment in the mission to have it repealed. He has taken a courageous stand against FATCA, [a law that] will impose unnecessary costs and burdens on foreign financial institutions.”
Tinfoil (and Tasteless) Hat Alert
Fox News Contributor and conspiracy theorist Eric Rush is speculating that the President of the United States actually orchestrated the attacked on the Benghazi diplomatic mission:
“I have always leaned in the direction of the administration having orchestrated the attack for reasons of its own – given his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and legendary understanding of all things Islamic, it is possible that President Obama could even have arranged for the assault on the compound without the foreknowledge of his Cabinet”.
Also at Fox, pundit Eric Bolling took time out to work the President’s daughters into the Benghazi mix:
Had It Been Sasha Or Malia Obama Who Died In Benghazi, Wouldn’t We “Be Asking Different Questions?”
Finally, this, to send to your paranoid uncles:
On This Day: 1773 – The English Parliament passed the Tea Act, which taxed all tea in the U.S. colonies. 1908 – The first Mother’s Day observance took place during a church service in Grafton, West Virginia. 1968 – Jim Morrison (Doors) incited a riot during a Chicago concert.
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