Workers tell Wal-Mart to get in line: Now it’s time for the food justice movement to get in line with the workers
By Ashley Pinkerton
Workers across the country are striking against Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, despite risk of losing their jobs. The supercenter has long been criticized for its deplorable labor practices including low wages, wage theft, no breaks, and forced overtime. Despite numerous lawsuits against the superstore in recent years, Wal-Mart has time and time again proven that it would rather pay settlement fees than improve its labor standards. But the workers picketing for fair wages and practices are saying enough is enough. Wal-Mart has dismissed the strike claiming everything is ‘business as usual’ despite the numerous strikes proliferating around the country. However, as the number of striking workers grows, the superstore may have to change its tune.
This confrontation—like many others—pits the power of money against the power of people. To give the reader an idea of how much money-power Wal-Mart wields: according to a 2007 analysis done by Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics, the six members of the Walton family (the heirs of the superstore) have a total wealth of $93 billion—more than that of the bottom 30 percent of U.S. poor families combined. The striking Wal-Mart workers are reaching out to good food advocates. While activists pushing fresh food access, community gardens, farm-to-school and Community Supported Agriculture may not immediately see the connection (especially since Wal-Mart is now touting local and organic products), a win for striking Wal-Mart workers is a win for food justice in many ways.
Wal-Mart squeezes both workers and suppliers
Wal-Mart’s monopsony power allows it to drive down prices paid to its suppliers. Wal-Mart accounts for the largest share of the groceries bought by U.S. shoppers (reporting $103.7 billion in sales in 2009, or roughly eighteen percent), as compared with the second largest grocery retailer, Kroger, which sold $65.6 billion. If suppliers do not comply with Wal-Mart’s demands, they risk losing its retail market, which sometimes means the difference between staying afloat and going out of business. As a result, Wal-Mart’s food suppliers have to find ways to cut costs, denying their own workers fair wages, and pressuring farmers to do the same. In many instances businesses are forced to consolidate so they can be big and cheap enough to “feed” Wal-Mart. For example, four firms now slaughter 80 percent of the cattle in the U.S. This also causes greater unemployment. The upshot: fewer small farmers and food suppliers; more of an oligopoly in the food system; more huge monoculture, chemical input-intensive fields; more inhumane treatment of animals associated with factory farming; more instances of abusive labor practices. So, Wal-Mart’s actions have a ripple effect all the way through the food chain.
Wal-Mart is a poverty creator
When Wal-Mart enters a community, small and medium sized businesses close down and jobs are lost. Businesses that do stay open are forced to reduce their wages to stay competitive. A study of an urban Wal-Mart that opened on Chicago's South Side in 2006 indicated that the new store cost the local economy as many jobs as it created, without increasing local sales tax revenue. In other words, Wal-Mart drives local food retail alternatives out of the market. Moreover, Wal-Mart offers mainly part-time employment, which lowers overall incomes and keeps families in poverty. In fact, rather than pay decent wages, the superstore actually educates its employees on how to apply for food stamps. Wal-Mart actually receives huge gains from food stamps: it indirectly collects the largest amount of food stamps because it offers the best ‘bang for your buck’. In addition, when the superstore comes to town, community health and well-being deteriorate. Increased poverty and unemployment often push up crime rates and hinder local economic growth.
Wal-Mart seeks out impoverished communities because they lack the political power to prevent the store from coming in and because Wal-Mart’s low prices appeal to low-income shoppers. Bargain purchases lead to poor nutrition because the cheapest foods are the least healthy. By “lowering the bar” on working conditions, economic activity and community health, Wal-Mart ends up unfairly competing with community food projects, making it more difficult for them to bring in good food and good jobs.
So, the food justice movement has a lot to gain if Wal-Mart concedes to the demands of workers. Power in numbers is the only thing that will overcome the immense monetary clout of this corporation.