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(This diary cross-posted from the Change to Win blog, CtW Connect)

Amidst all the gloom about job losses, some news outlets have been saying that they’ve found a ray of light — Walmart’s announcement that the retail behemoth intends to hire 22,000 new people in 2009:

Walmart U.S. announced today that it will create more than 22,000 jobs in 2009 to staff new or expanded stores in the United States. The company is hiring for a number of positions including store management, pharmacists, human resource managers, customer service associates, cashiers and sales associates among others.

It’s true that seeing a story about a company adding jobs these days is pretty novel. But is this really a sign of progress for our economy? And if not, what can we do about it?

Take a walk through history, hear the voices of workers of the 1930s in streaming audio, and learn the lessons taught by their experiences, after the jump...

Walmart’s 22,000 new jobs, strikingly, are almost exactly equal to the number of jobs that have been cut in the first wave of the reorganization of General Motors:

Armed with aid packages and promises of a better future, President Barack Obama’s cabinet members fanned out across the US “rust belt” Tuesday to calm concerns in the wake of a bankruptcy filing by General Motors.

The political risks for Obama were high as the US government took a 60 percent stake in the troubled automaker in exchange for providing 50 billion dollars to help finance a restructuring which includes plans to close 14 plants and cut 21,000 US jobs.

But you can’t really say that the one balances out the other. Why? Because the jobs being lost at GM are good jobs — jobs that pay a middle-class wage, offer affordable health care and retirement security, and give the people who hold them a shot at the American Dream.

Jobs at Walmart, on the other hand? They’re a bit… different:

Wal-Mart offers poverty level wages.

Using Wal-Mart’s figures, a “full-time” employee at 34 hours per week, making the Wal-Mart average wage of $10.86 per hour, will earn $19,200.48 per year. The federal government’s definition of poverty for a family of four is $21,200. [2008 Wal-Mart Employee Handbook; 2008 HHS Poverty Guidelines]

Wal-Mart’s health care plan fails to cover nearly 700,000 employees.

Wal-Mart reports that its health insurance covers only 51.8% of their employees. [UFCW analysis of Wal-Mart health plan, March 2008] This forces many Wal-Mart workers to rely on state-sponsored healthcare.  In fact, in 21 of 23 states where data is available, Wal-Mart forces more employees to rely on taxpayer-funded health care than any other employer. [“Disclosures of Employers Whose Workers and Their Dependents are Using State Health Insurance Programs,” Good Jobs First, 6/26/07]

And it’s not like those jobs can’t be good jobs. Walmart sits upon an absolutely astonishing pile of money; and at the very top of that pile sits the Walton family:

The Walton family is now worth over $100 billion.

With over 1.7 billion shares, or 43% of Wal-Mart stock, the Walton family wields enormous control over the company. Even by Walton standards, 2008 has been a good year for the family. From November 2007 to September 2008, the stock prices rose by over $21. This means the Walton family made around $35 billion off the stock price increase alone. [Forbes 400 Richest People in America, 2008].

The Walton family could afford to raise wages.

That same $35 billion could provide every Wal-Mart employee with a $14 pay increase for one year or raise the company’s minimum pay to $24 an hour for one year. [Wal-Mart Watch/UC Berkeley Labor Center]

The Waltons have made so much money from their Walmart stake, in fact, that when Forbes magazine listed the 10 richest Americans in 2008, four of them were Waltons.

Which is why simply juxtaposing the fates of GM and Walmart is misleading. This is more than just a story of jobs being lost in some communities and gained in others. It’s a symbol of the direction our economy has been traveling in for decades now — the middle class squeezed out of existence, a few spectacularly wealthy plutocrats at the top, and the rest of us struggling just to hang on to whatever economic security we have.

But does it have to be this way?

Nowhere is it written, after all, that manufacturing jobs should automatically come with good pay and benefits, and that service jobs should automatically lack them. That’s not a law of nature, or even of economics. It’s the outcome of history — of manufacturing workers struggling against titanic opposition to turn what were originally brutal, dirty, dangerous jobs into the jobs that are the envy of the working world today.

Those GM jobs — the jobs that we all think of now as the foundation of the middle class — were no exception to this rule.  The Detroit News remembers what life on the GM line was like in the 1930s, before workers there joined together in a strong union:

The workers could be fired by any foreman anytime. The work itself — dangerous, difficult, and boring — caused many injuries, often for simple reasons such as lack of gloves. Exertion caused the families extreme exhaustion, which distressed the workers’ families, who shared the fear of possible job loss. Could the worker endure? They needed the money. The rock and the hard place squeezed them all.

You can listen to audio recordings of workers recounting what the work environment was like in those days; their stories are not pretty.

The terrible working conditions at GM led to the historic Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 — a strike that marked the beginning of the broad unionization of American auto manufacturing, and the beginning of the process that turned jobs at GM into the jobs that built the American middle class.

But no matter how important it is, no victory is forever; no triumph is eternal. In a capitalist society, economic forces are continually throwing old jobs down and raising new jobs up. The gains won by generations past must ever be won again, or be lost.

This, then, is the moral of the story: if we wish our children's America to be a nation where their work is honored and rewarded, we must make it so, together.

This is our challenge — and our moment.

Originally posted to ChangeToWin on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 11:12 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  22,ooo (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brooke In Seattle, kevin k

    22,000 walmart jobs just means they are going into more towns and destroying the small businesses that were there for decades.  Probabaly a job loss at the end of it all.

    Please, you think we can ever unionize again?  With so many poor people, with so many people coming in willing to do anything for a few bucks?

    Free trade/Nafta etc was created so the rich could pit the poor versus the poor so they never had to worry about unions agains.  Unions ONLY work in a protected economy with a limited supply of workers.  The world and US is no such place.

    (regarding the bank mess) They want to cure the patient but not deal with the disease.

    by dark daze on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 11:42:01 AM PDT

  •  Retail work is not a "good job." (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tmo, TiaRachel, Visceral, chrome327

    It is thankless drone work that forces a person to stand on his or her feet all day.

    It produces nothing but bunions and fallen arches.

    If you go read the economic recovery act, you will see that a huge percentage of the jobs that are supposed to be created are retail jobs.

    Just who in the hell is going to be shopping anyplace if you replace all the good-paying manufacturing jobs with ones paying two-thirds less?

    Unions would help, yes, but to what end? If those are the only jobs available, how much bargaining is going to get done? There is always someone willing to work cheaper than you.

    And what kind of satisfaction would there be in working at a job that does nothing but sell cheap crap to people who generally can't afford anything better?

    "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." -- Mark Twain

    by Brooke In Seattle on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 11:48:45 AM PDT

  •  I don't get your diary (0+ / 0-)

    Are you comparing Wal-Mart jobs to assembly line jobs from the 30s, and implying we should be grateful for the wonderful opportunities that Wal-Mart is offering us all?

    Your diary's title alone sounds like some BS from any HR office or self-help guru: "Any job can be fufilling and lucrative and lead you right to the top if only you have the right attitude and want to be successful at it! Don't be mad at the boss for your own flaws."

    You talk about unions and workers joining together to fight for their jobs, but then turn around and say that capitalism's very nature makes it impossible for those jobs to last, implying that we just have to accept that and resign ourselves to compete with sweatshop slaves in East Asia.

    •  Nope (0+ / 0-)

      Are you comparing Wal-Mart jobs to assembly line jobs from the 30s?

      Yes.

      and implying we should be grateful for the wonderful opportunities that Wal-Mart is offering us all?

      No! Wha?

      What I'm saying is that jobs become good when WE MAKE THEM GOOD. Because people get together and FIGHT to make them good. That there's nothing magical about a job at GM that attached good wages and good benefits to it except that workers got together and WON those good wages and good benefits. And that we have to do the same for the jobs in the growth sectors of today.

      This is about as far from the corporate HR "Who Moved My Cheese" BS as you can get, I should think...

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