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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FLASHBACK: Good Luck to the Walmart Strikers!

Originally published on 23rd November 2013.

In the United States today, there is a large group of ordinary workers is standing up to world’s largest, and probably most prolific, corporate giant. Walmart represents some of the worst excesses of globalised capitalism; it has depressed wages, introduced draconian working conditions, forced governments into offering subsidies, moved thousands of jobs to the developing world where they can behave in an even worse manner, shirked its responsibilities as an employer, destroyed local businesses, and driven down the quality of the products it sells.

Today, a large number of American Walmart employees are striking for wages higher than $8 (£5), working weeks of 30 hours and not 27.5 (In the US, employers need to provide health cover to employees who work 30 hours or longer) and to generally be treated as human beings rather than units to be exploited. Today is Black Friday, when shopping will be at its maximum after Thanksgiving, so this strike will be short and sharp.

Walmart has up until now been relatively successful at marginalising trade unions, which present a major block to the corporation swelling its profits in yet another way. Many people have grumbled at how Walmart employees are forced to work reduced hours for miniscule pay, but the threat of being cast into the privatised disaster that represents the American social security system has been enough for the supermarket giant to divide and rule. Even now, when unions have dodged the legal barriers to their existence and industrial action, Walmart is alleged to have illegally lent on employees to not take part in the strike.

Globalisation all too often works against the people. Bankers and manufacturers, amongst others, constantly demand deregulation, tax cuts, dilution of the workforce’s rights and representation, and seemingly the world on a silver platter, or, we are told, they will cheerfully relocate to dodgy tax havens or shady developing countries. And until we make our governments get their acts together, that is going to be a major barrier to social justice. Is it not time we tried broadening protests to the globalised world in which our problems exist?

Walmart is a prime example. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re in the UK, the US or Canada, in all of which Walmart operates. (In the UK, it trades as ASDA) As with Barclays colluding with the apartheid regime in South Africa, pressure on subsidiaries, and not just the parent company, is key.

It is not acceptable for working people in the world’s most prosperous country to find themselves without affordable healthcare, to be on poverty wages, and for this to be sustained by a highly profitable and influential business which contributes so little to society. I have therefore donated sponsored a striker (search “Our Walmart” for more information) and will write to ASDA informing them that I will try to divert as much custom away from them as possible until Walmart delivers a fair deal to all of its workers around the world.

If the likes of Walmart won’t deliver justice now, then it’s only a matter of time until the people make them via the ballot box.

FLASHBACK: How Many More Massacres Until Action is Taken?

Originally published on 15th December 2012.

The world was shaken by yesterday’s news that yet another school massacre has taken place in the United States- this time a 20 year old man who shot 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school (which does not match the Columbine tragedy in which it was teenagers shooting their classmates). The tragedy as attracted sympathy from people worldwide, and President Obama was clearly emotional when delivering a short statement to the press on the matter yesterday evening.

Whilst such mass, indiscriminate shootings are not exclusive to the United States, it is apparent that the US suffers from these on a regular basis compared with the rest of the world. Gun crime is astronomically high by international standards, and gun ownership is tolerated to a much greater extent in American society. In a country in which bullets can be picked up at the local supermarket- and a quick look on Walmart‘s website (have a look on http://www.walmart.com, and search for guns) indicates that the same is true of guns themselves- the normalisation of fatal weaponry must have some affect on the psyche of some individuals within it. That is why I will join with what I think is the silent majority of Americans in wanting major reform of gun ownership laws.

Every time there is a massacre like the one that the world saw yesterday, many on the liberal wing of political opinion will call for restrictions on gun ownership. Unfortunately, they lack the influence or indeed the financial firepower of the creepy National Rifle Association and associated gun lobby, and so the matter is forgotten about within a few weeks. This is a pattern which cannot continue, for the human cost is too great. True, not everybody who owns firearms is a mass-murderer. But why give so many people the means to do so?

Why Shouldn’t Gun Controls Be Tightened?

  • The majority of gun owners have no intention of breaking the law, so they are entitled to their freedom

True. But those who own a gun clearly have the capability of hurting or killing somebody or some animal for some reason. If hundreds of dead children and thousands of murder victims every year is the cost of providing false peace of mind to people who don’t use the guns in the first place (and if they are, that presents an issue in itself) then it’s time we struck a balance between people’s freedom to own lethal weaponry and others’ freedom to not be slaughtered.

  • It isn’t fair to punish the majority for a small minority abusing their rights

That principle is generally a sound one. But it isn’t a punishment; it’s always been a bad idea to make devastating lethal weaponry freely available to the general public. If gun owners are genuinely responsible in their actions, then we are taking nothing away from them. They didn’t shoot people before and they would now lack the ability to.

  •  Gun controls would take away a crucial means of self-defence

Nonsense. Firstly, when the police have manpower freed up from having to deal with gun crime, they will provide a more effective response to crime and crime prevention in the first place. Secondly, self-defence should be non-lethal in almost all circumstances. And what is the greater threat to the public: a high number of firearms acting as a catalyst for violence, or an environment in which the weaponry available does not enable long-range injury?

  •  Our liberty would be threatened if the government controlled gun ownership

Frankly, the idea that a 21st century western superpower could be allowed to become a dictatorship, and that an armed  militia could restore democracy, is laughable. Besides, who’s liberty is threatened? That of the general public, or the gun-owning minority? The dangers of vigilantism are greater in the US than those of a dictatorship.

  •  Britain has tight firearms regulation, but criminals still get hold of guns                                                                                                       
  • This is true, but gun crime is very low by international standards. The general public can feel a lot safer in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be affected by gun crime.