Wal-Mart workers’ protests of management mistreatment late last year captured the imagination of many progressives and union activists, but the battle for support from the broader public has yet to be won. And that’s where the Retail Justice Alliance (RJA), formally launched on Monday, enters the fray. It arrives at a convenient moment, as the National Labor Relations Board, in response to a Wal-Mart challenge, has ordered a temporary suspension of the pickets and protests at the stores by OUR Walmart, the worker organization trying to raise standards at the stores but not formally asking for union recognition.
“The job of the Retail Justice Alliance is to shift public opinion,” says its founding chair, Bill Fletcher Jr., a long-time activist in labor union, racial justice and international solidarity movements. RJA will work to educate the public not only about the poor conditions — low pay, limited benefits, lack of job security, erratic and inadequate hours of work, and slim possibilities for career advancement — in much of the industry. It will also try to drive home the message that both consumers and the public as a whole would benefit from better treatment of retail workers by, for example, boosting overall economic growth and reducing tax expenses for public subsidies that many workers receive because they are quite poor despite their jobs. And finally, RJA emphasizes, retail companies can thrive — even as low-price merchandisers — and still pay much higher wages, provide more satisfying and skilled work, and negotiate with workers collectively about their working conditions.
Organizing retail workers or improving their jobs, especially at Wal-Mart and other big box chains, will not be easy, but it will be more feasible with greater public understanding and support. Initially, as Fletcher and others discussed forming the organization over the past year, some participants wanted to focus on building support in black and possibly Latino communities.
Wal-Mart, along with other retailers, recently expanded into major urban centers after 50 years of conquering the markets of rural and suburban America. Despite strong opposition to its opening stores in many cities, Walmart succeeded in some cases, like Chicago, because it was able to convince some black politicians that opponents were not concerned about jobs or shopping opportunities in black communities. In a nasty turn of events, a few black Chicago city council members denounced unions as “racist,” playing into the hands of the pro-Wal-Mart mayor at the time, Richard M. Daley.
African-American leaders compose much of RJA’s initial steering committee, and the group is likely to play an important role in reaching out to black consumers and citizens. Fletcher, however, envisions a broader, multi-ethnic future for the organization. “We feel that in order to organize Wal-Mart, this should be a multi-ethnic project,” he says. “We can’t afford to have Wal-Mart play the race card.”
Also, while the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which backed the formation of the somewhat independent OUR Walmart, supports RJA, the new group will be independent and will tackle not just Wal-Mart but all of the retail sector, with an initial focus on the big box retailers. Fletcher sees organizing the new retail titans as a challenge for this decade comparable to organizing the automobile industry in the 1930s, and within the drive to unionize and raise standards for the retail industry as a whole, Wal-Mart occupies a position like Ford Motor Company did — a first mover in the sector, iconic, influential and ideologically extremely hostile to unions.
Leaders of RJA think that making retail jobs good jobs is both critical for the nation and possible. “I’m involved in this effort,” says Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel, “because making the retail trade sector a higher wage sector is really important for the workers in that industry, for the nation, and it will also benefit consumers.”
Retail firms employ more than one-eighth of the workforce, but since 1979, Mishel says, real hourly wages in this sector have dropped by 12 percent (and by 21 percent if one excludes the surge in pay for lower-wage jobs during the late 1990s). But the jobs have declined or remained poor in many other ways — including the short, erratic hours that bedevil so many retail workers, keeping their overall income lower while also making it impossible for them to hold other jobs or go to school.
Most retailers have followed Wal-Mart down the economic low road. But in the current Harvard Business Review visiting MIT Sloan Business School professor Zeynep Ton examines how some companies — Costco, Trader Joe’s and QuikTrip in the U.S., and Mercadona grocers in Spain — manage to succeed by sales, profit and other corporate yardsticks while paying their workers far above average and providing more stable, long-term and attractive jobs than their competitors. These companies invest in workers, training them more extensively and for more roles, giving them more voice in daily work and more opportunities. This results in higher morale, lower turnover, fewer errors, greater knowledge of the store and higher productivity. And unlike low-road businesses like Wal-Mart that focus on cutting labor costs and the number of workers or hours worked whenever sales fluctuate, these stores retain their employees and put them to work on other tasks when sales dip.
Beyond the economic case, however, RJA will focus primarily on the second word in its name. “Justice, that’s what we’ve got to get at Walmart,” Fletcher says. RJA will start with a series of field hearings in four cities this spring, but some of the retail workers at the press conference reaffirmed Fletcher’s strategy.
“As a human being, it’s a shame we have to be here asking for a living wage,” Colby Harris, a leader in OUR Walmart, said at the announcement of RJA’s formation. “This is bigger than a money issue. It’s a moral issue.”
Their goal is not just a living wage, Don Gathers, a Richmond grocery store worker, explained. “We’re looking for the Aretha Franklin wage,” Gathers says, “the wage that spells R‑E-S-P-E-C‑T.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.