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Liza Featherstone, author of “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart” says the concessions to workers was forged by years of worker-led struggle and direct action

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: On Thursday, America’s largest private employer, Walmart, announced it was raising wages for half a million employees across the country. But the move falls far short of the demands from workers groups and advocates who say they want a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to unionize. DOUG MCMILLON, CEO, WALMART: We’re making changes to our pay, strengthening the opportunity to progress within the company, and offering more choice in scheduling. NOOR: Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart, said workers will get a $9 minimum base wage by April and $10 next year. That’s up from state and federal minimum wages, which start at $7.25. MCMILLON: For our current associates, we’ll start by raising our entry wage to at least $9 an hour in April. And by February of next year, all current associates will earn at least $10 an hour. NOOR: The move also includes wage bumps for managers and gives workers more control over their schedules. Our Walmart, which has helped organize protests for years, demanding a base salary of $25,000 a year and the right to unionize, along with better working conditions, said on their Facebook page, while the move doesn’t get most of us to $15 an hour and full-time, it shows that by standing together and taking action we can make a big change at Walmart. Today when we go to work, let’s tell our coworkers what we’ve accomplished and invite them to–and join us in making even bigger change at Walmart. Liza Featherstone is the Belle Zeller visiting professor of public policy at Brooklyn College and covers labor, economic justice, and women’s issues. FEATHERSTONE: When I heard the news that Walmart was raising its wages this morning, I was really thrilled, not because I think [incompr.] dollars an hour is enough or something that workers should settle for or even be happy with, but because it really shows what anybody who has looked a lot at the history of labor relations in the United States knows, which is that when workers go on strike, when workers walk out, when they agitate, they do get results from employers and made to–they do win improvements in their situation. So, I mean, this really shows that for all the media that Walmart has gotten for years for underpaying its workers, all the sort of critical analysis and media-savvy campaigns by unions, what really works is workers themselves protesting and going on strike and taking these matters into their own hands. NOOR: Featherstone also argues that gaining more control of their schedules is a major victory for Walmart workers. FEATHERSTONE: A think a lot of people are going to glaze over that piece of the news, ’cause it sounds so boring and human resourcey. But, wow, that’s so important, because the scheduling has been really a tremendous weapon of control that Walmart and companies like it revealed against low-wage workers. These folks have just no control over when they’re going to work. They very often can’t get enough hours, so just not being on the clock or being on the clock unexpectedly when you maybe had to pick up your kid, I mean, these are really tremendous issues for these workers. And if indeed they are going to have better control over or at least better information about when they’re working, that doesn’t sound like a big thing, but really is a big thing. NOOR: In 2004, Featherstone authored Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Walmart. She discusses the decades-long struggle for rights waged by Walmart workers. FEATHERSTONE: I started covering these issues in around 2002, so more than ten years ago now. When workers at Walmart, women workers, were suing the company for systematic discrimination in wages and promotion, the vast majority of workers at Walmart are women. But at that time only a third of management were women. Women were underpaid–in every single position at the company, Women were paid less than men. Even positions like cashier, where there were hardly any men, the men would still be paid more than the women. So it was really–it was quite a systemic problem. There was a lot of really good data that Walmart was forced to give up during the course of this last few–. And years went by and it ground through the legal system, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled–the Supreme Court threw it out, because it has just become more and more legally difficult for workers to bring class-action suits, and there has been a concerted effort by conservatives and by business interests to make that more difficult. And the Supreme Court was very attentive to the business interests who were then on the case and said this–Walmart is really too big to sue, essentially, that you cannot bring a suit this sweeping against a company as large as Walmart, even with the data showing that this is a very systemic problem. So after years and years of trying to get some justice through this method, women at Walmart really got very little from that. Meanwhile, a lot of–some unions had attempted to organize Walmart workers, since the late ’80s, really, and found it very difficult. Labor law in the United States is pretty hostile to organizing these kinds of populations in these situations with very high turnover. And Walmart was also ruthless in busting the unions. They would–the company would fire workers who tried to organize. In a few situations where a unit, a distribution center, for example, or a meatpacking department would actually vote to join a union, Walmart would close the unit or would threaten to close the units. And those kinds of measures are actually illegal. But Walmart would get away with a fine. A few years later, the particular workers would be gone, the union would be gone. So it was very–the logical strategy of organizing the workers and of the workers joining the union was, like the lawsuit, a remedy that was for years not really yielding many results. So when I published the book that I wrote, Selling Women Short, the in 2004, and then again with a little bit of an update in 2005, that’s what was happening. And so what was happening was that Walmart workers were getting a fair amount of press for the injustices they were suffering, you know, the low wages and sex discrimination especially, but really making no material progress. And in the last few years, groups like Our Walmart have been going on strike, demanding higher pay, demanding freedom of association or the right to unionize. When workers get fired for participating in our Walmart, which has happened, they really push back against that. They go on strike. And they’ve been demanding that the stores wages increase to $15 an hour. And we’ve seen that kind of activity a lot in Walmarts, especially on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is the shopping day of the year. So I think that the movement we see now by Walmart is certainly a direct result of this kind of activism from the workers. NOOR: From Baltimore, this is Jaisal Noor.


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Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.