Sunday, November 18, 2012

Evolution in the South: Slave...Sharecropper...Walmart Associate...

Elizabeth Dwoskin supplied an interesting article in Bloomberg Businessweek indicating that Walmart’s workers are finally fed up and beginning to resist the work conditions imposed by one of the most exploitive organizations on the face of the earth.
"America’s biggest retailer may be in for an unexpectedly painful holiday season. Protesting low wages, spiking health care premiums, and alleged retaliation from management, Wal-Mart Stores workers have started to walk off the job this week. First, on Wednesday, about a dozen workers in Wal-Mart’s distribution warehouses in Southern California walked out, followed the next day by 30 more from six stores in the Seattle area."

"The workers, who are part of a union-backed employee coalition called Making Change at Wal-Mart, say this is the beginning of a wave of protests and strikes leading up to next week’s Black Friday. A thousand store protests are planned in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., the group says."

"In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, workers who were either planning to strike or already striking explained their situation. ‘We have to borrow money from each other just to make it to work,’ said Colby Harris, who earns $8.90 an hour after having worked at a Wal-Mart in Lancaster, Tex., for three years. ‘I’m on my lunch break right now, and I have two dollars in my pocket. I’m deciding whether to use it to buy lunch or to hold on to it for next week.’ He said the deduction from his bimonthly pay check for health-care costs is scheduled to triple in January. In 2013, Wal-Mart plans to scale back its contributions to workers’ health-care premiums, which are expected to rise between 8 percent and 36 percent. Many employees will forgo coverage, Reuters reports."

"Sara Gilbert, a manager who was striking in Seattle, called in on her cell phone: ‘I work full-time for one of the richest companies in the world, and my kids get state health insurance and are on food stamps,’ she said."

It is a little surprising that it has taken this long for serious push-back to begin, but it was inevitable that as the shadow of Walmart spread from the South and across the nation that it would eventually have a problem when it had to recruit workers (called associates) who hadn’t been conditioned by generations of abuse by southern oligarchs. I have been highly critical of Walmart and its practices in the past: Wal-Mart: How it Mistreats Its Employees, and Wal-Mart: The Damage It Has Done to Society. (Wal-Mart officially became Walmart a few years ago.) But it was Colin Woodard, in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, who provided the proper perspective in which to view Walmart and its methods.

Woodard claims that the Southern states, and the Republican Party, have accepted the philosophical leadership of what he refers to as the "Deep South."

"The Deep South was founded by Barbados slave lords as a West Indies-style slave society, a system so cruel and despotic that it shocked even its seventeenth-century English contemporaries. For most of American history, the region has been the bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was a privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many."

"The goal of the Deep south oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party-state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace, safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible."

Woodard tells us that the Republican Party agenda is identical to that of the historic Deep South approach, and suggests that the treatment accorded southern workers is just of modern version of the sharecropping system put in place as the next best business practice after slavery.

"...they focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy, funneling massive subsidies to the oligarchs’ agribusinesses and oil companies, eliminating labor and environmental regulations, creating ‘guest worker programs’ to secure cheap farm labor from the developing world, and poaching manufacturing jobs from higher-wage unionized industries in Yankeedom, New Netherland, or the Midlands. It’s a strategy financial analyst Stephen Cummings has likened to ‘a high technology version of the plantation economy of the Old South,’ with the working and middle class playing the role of sharecroppers."

This reference reminds us what it meant to be a sharecropper in the Old South.

"Sharecropping became widespread as a response to economic upheaval caused by the emancipation of slaves and disenfranchisement of poor whites in the agricultural South during Reconstruction. Plantations had first relied on slaves for cheap labor. Prior to emancipation, sharecropping was limited to poor landless whites, usually working marginal lands for absentee landlords. Following emancipation, sharecropping came to be an economic arrangement that largely maintained the status quo between black and white through legal means."

"....many sharecroppers (both black and white) were economically confined to serf-like conditions of poverty. To work the land, sharecroppers had to buy seed and implements, sometimes from the plantation owner who often charged exorbitant prices against the sharecropper's next season. Arrangements also typically gave half or less of the crop to the sharecropper, and the sale price in some cases was set by the landowner. Lacking the resources to market his crops independently, the sharecropper was sometimes compensated in scrip redeemable only at the plantation."

"Thus the cost of production and price of sale were both largely controlled by the land owner, with the sharecropper having little, if any, margin for profit. These factors made sharecroppers dependent on the plantation owners in a way that perpetuated some of the aspects of slavery, and in the late 19th century maintained a stable, low-cost work force that replaced slave labor..."

The sharecropping system persisted in the South until the middle of the twentieth century.

For the sharecropper analogy with the Walmart system to apply, Walmart would have to be in the position to exercise complete control over workers’ wages and working conditions, and be guilty of excessive greed in extracting profits from its workers’ labor. A Walmart employee would be paid at a sufficiently low rate that saving money in order to better her condition would not be possible. The comments from the workers quoted above indicate that the case will not be hard to make.

In Wal-Mart: How it Mistreats Its Employees the ways in which Walmart imposes policies that are hurtful to the employee and occasionally cross the line into illegality are described. Consider, for example:

"Full-time employment at Wal-Mart is considered to 34 hours per week. That is so they can work you extra hours and legally not pay you overtime. What it means immediately is that your effective wage is actually 15 percent lower than the quoted hourly figure. And there is no guarantee of your hours. If your hours are low enough they do not have to provide you with any benefits. Wal-Mart’s policy is that if business slows down, the loss in income comes first from its employees in terms of shorter hours and less pay. That is the Wal-Mart way. If you end up working more than 40 hours in a week and expect to earn some overtime—well, watch what you wish for. Any number of law suits have proven that Wal-Mart encourages its managers to cheat the employees by modifying time cards or by instructing them to punch out and then continue working. This is referred to as working "off-the-clock." If one is foolish enough to complain she can easily be rewarded with shortened hours or enough variable shifts to force her to quit."

And from The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business by Nelson Lichtenstein:

"Indeed, Wal-Mart is an outlaw. ‘We’re going to quit breaking the law,’ Regional Vice-President Larry Williams told a Tulsa meeting of store managers in 1994. The OSHA laws we have, the wage and hour laws that we have, the federal firearms law, we’re going to quit breaking the law.’ But without a radical shift in the corporate work culture, such top-down admonitions were but futile wishes, ignored by Wal-Mart’s army of hard-pressed managers. Although both K-Mart and Target proscribe overtime pay and squeeze their managers and workers to keep labor costs in line, neither has been the subject of a class-action ‘off-the-clock’ suit. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, was defending itself against seventy-five such suits as of December 2008 when the company announced a settlement, perhaps costing as much as $640 million, in sixty-three of those wage and hour lawsuits covering hundreds of thousands of workers in some forty-two states."

I finished that post with this statement. I see no reason to modify it.

"Wal-Mart tries to cloak itself in a mantle of righteousness, but it has spent its life careening along that fine line between mean-spiritedness and criminality. It deserves the same rapid termination that it provides its employees. Let’s try to avoid supporting this company in any way."

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