Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.

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This Is What Obamacare Is For

The controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ has had most of its provisions in effect since the New Year, and the past months have seen a massive expansion in health insurance coverage across the American population. Although many Americans are suspicious of anything resembling ‘Big Government’ and the Republicans have made political capital out of the technical failures that affected the scheme, the benefits of Obamacare are beginning to be felt by the population. Soon, it will become politically impossible to return to the bad old days of the profiteering, shady and unregulated healthcare market.

Yes, the ACA is a pale reflection of the ‘ideal’ system (business should have no place at all in healthcare, for example) and its coverage is patchy, as individual states can vary the extent to which they implement it. However, one key provision is universal, namely the rule that health insurers can no longer charge higher premiums, or refuse coverage, to those with pre-existing medical conditions. The unjust situation in which those suffering from long-term illness were often financially crippled by bills they could not insure themselves against is pretty much a thing of the past. About time too. A rich society like the US which can afford to support the sick but chooses not to is not a healthy one as a whole.

In the news, we now hear heartwarming stories of low-paid and unemployed Americans being able to visit GPs (‘family doctors’) for the first time. Previously, the only occasion on which they ever saw a doctor would have followed life-threatening injury. As any medical professional or economist could tell you, there are enormous benefits to having diseases treated before they reach emergency stages, in terms of the patient’s wellbeing but also in that they can keep working and have less expensive treatment.

Moreover, I can’t imagine the relief that millions of newly insured Americans must feel now that they have a degree of security. When a person needs medical treatment, they should not have to worry about the cost. People were being scraped off of pavements by ambulances and worrying about the five-figure bill that would result, rather than than the painful injuries they had suffered. The fact that it only takes one accident to cost you, literally in many cases, everything you own isn’t something you can ever forget or ignore. It was just one more dimension to the emotional and mental drag that affects those living hand to mouth. That’s why Obamacare is one of the most progressive measures taken in the US for decades: it has lifted such a burden from so many people.

President Obama was open about his desire the ACA to be his defining act at the helm of the US government. For all its limitations, its a fine legacy to leave.

Obama is in an Impossible Position

Barack Obama gave his 6th State of the Union (SOTU) address to the people of the United States yesterday. He gave the speech in the knowledge that he is about as unpopular as he has ever been, and that he has precious little time to change his country any further before he enters the “lame duck” phase of two term presidencies.

Of course, Mr Obama cannot win, for the American electorate is a cruel creature. It swept Mr Obama to power under the weight of undeliverable expectations, then two years later it deprived the Democrats of the House of Representatives majority that they needed to pass the legislation for reform. Not only that, but voters have spent the four years since complaining that the moderate politician (to whom they denied a legislative majority) has failed to transform the United States. But note the suspicion and hostility that greeted Obama’s most important reform, Obamacare, even from Democrat voters.

It is tempting to think that Barack Obama is powerless to make the American public happy. Certainly, there is very little he could plausibly do unless he builds a majority in both houses of Congress. If he does, he can cut through the paralysis that plagues his administration in what should be its prime years of activity.

But that’s not the message that Obama wanted to send us yesterday. He was stressing that he is still alert to the problems that are affecting the United States, in particular that of the chronic inequality that continues to grow across the West. Obama says he’ll do what he can by bypassing Congress, such as by imposing a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour for all new federal employees. It is roughly equivalent to the UK National Minimum Wage- not a liveable rate, but a lot closer to it. Indeed, the whole policy is very limited in scope, but in all fairness it is a good start, about as much as Obama can do without Congress. Another thing that he can do, and plans to do by the next SOTU speech, is to close the authoritarian and disturbing scar on America’s libertarian ideals that is Guantanamo Bay.

Does that sound familiar? That’s because the same thing was said 5 years ago. So you’ll excuse my scepticism.

I make no secret of the fact that my politics are hardly a match for Obama’s. But I do wish him success in his aims, and hope he will get the powers he needs to implement long overdue “change we can believe in”.