(The Root) — On Black Friday, Wal-Mart workers across the country went on strike to protest the company's notoriously low wages and retaliation against free speech, demanding that Wal-Mart come to the table and meet with employees to address their grievances. It's time we focus on the raw deal that Wal-Mart employees are getting and stand with black workers and other employees suffering under a real-life Scrooge — a company that puts profit before fairness. Friday's protests were just the beginning of growing efforts to hold the company accountable.
Despite the rising tide of public support for serious reform of Wal-Mart's labor practices, company executives are desperately trying to deny the significance of these actions. Last week's Black Friday protests coincided with the start of the most important season of the year for retailers, when stores bring in, on average, 20 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales. This year, Wal-Mart sought to maximize its return by opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, requiring employees to give up their time with family and friends so an enormously wealthy corporation can rake in more profit — profit that does not end up in the pockets of their employees.
Reinforcing the protest, nearly 55,000 ColorOfChange members have demanded that Wal-Mart's board of directors meet with employees and take immediate steps to improve working conditions and provide better pay, fair schedules and affordable health care.
Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer of black workers, but like the workers under Ebenezer Scrooge of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, employees struggle to survive, many living in poverty. The Walton family (descendants of Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton) is worth the same amount as the bottom 41.5 percent of Americans combined, while the average Wal-Mart employee makes $8.18 per hour, and just $15,576 per year for a full-time employee. Not that there are many of those — Wal-Mart systematically restricts hours to keep employees from reaching full-time status and the benefits that status would afford them. Even worse, the company changes employees' hours so that it is near-impossible for workers to seek supplemental employment elsewhere. It's worth noting Wal-Mart consistently has the largest number of employees who rely on public assistance.
The fact that 20 percent of Wal-Mart employees are black isn't helping our community — it's holding us back. But with black unemployment at 14.3 percent, many people have no choice but to turn to Wal-Mart for employment, especially in regions where the retail giant has actively worked to price out smaller competing businesses.
This is not the first time that workers and others across the country have called on Wal-Mart to reform their exploitative practices around wages, scheduling, benefits and workplace safety. For more than a year workers have asked the Wal-Mart board of directors to speak with them about improving their employment policies. But, like the overworked and undervalued Bob Cratchit, Wal-Mart workers brave enough to speak up have been slapped with retaliatory disciplinary actions, including cutbacks on hours and firings. Wal-Mart doesn't appear willing to negotiate with workers. Recently, the company filed a baseless National Labor Relations Board charge against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, saying workers engaged in an illegal strike, when workers were in fact legally protesting Wal-Mart's unfair labor practices.
Wal-Mart sets standards for the entire retail industry, yet it has chosen to set the standard for driving down wages and maximizing profits. What happens at Wal-Mart impacts much more than its own owners and employees — it has ramifications throughout the entire global retail sector. If Wal-Mart raised its employees' pay to ensure that every worker made a living wage, or changed its policies to provide benefits like health insurance to workers, it could transform the retail industry and improve working conditions for millions of Americans.
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge learns the importance of treating people well, and if Wal-Mart ever hopes to be embraced as a good company, it needs to learn the same lesson. Wal-Mart can start by ensuring that their own employees work reasonable hours, have adequate health care and can support their families. That's why it's so important that Wal-Mart's board meets with workers and listens to their stories, their concerns and their needs. That is where everyday people, through raised voices and consumer advocacy, can have a real impact. Because until we do, the one thing you won't find in Wal-Mart's aisles is justice for workers.
Rashad Robinson serves as Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org. With more than 800,000 members, ColorOfChange.org is the country's largest online civil rights organization.