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.