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Can Walmart Change?

David Callahan

Eighty years ago, in the 1930s, the auto industry -- a centerpiece of America's industrial economy -- was not yet unionized. Yet within twenty years, the big carmakers and the United Auto Workers would be effectively sharing power in Detroit, and building cars had become a reliable path into the middle class for workers with only a high school diploma, or not even that. 

This history is worth recalling as a titanic battle unfolds over worker rights in the retail sector. As I have written before, the retail sector's importance today is akin to the auto industry's centrality in the mid-twentieth century. Think of Walmart -- the nation's largest private employer -- as the GM of our time.

GM didn't come easily to the idea of sharing profits and power with its workers, the people who actually made the cars. It took decades for auto workers to even start organizing effectively: the UAW was only formed in 1935, three decades after the birth of the auto industry in Detroit. 

The battle to bring Walmart around must be seen in the same kind of time frame. The labor movement didn't really start to focus on the retail sector until the 1990s and it's only in the past decade or so that the abysmal wages and benefits of retail workers has penetrated the broader public consciousness. So, in many ways, we're still early in the game here. 

And there is a steady trickle of hopeful signs that things can improve for retail workers. Eighteen states have now raised their minimum wage above the federal level, and President Obama's call for a hike in the federal wage clearly reflects the growing attention on low-wage workers, particularly in retail.

Late last year, Walmart faced its largest strikes and protests ever, and early this year, it made a small but significant concession on worker schedules -- a very important issue to workers. As Demos reported in a 2011 report, arbitrary and unpredictable schedules create havoc in the lives of retail workers and are among their biggest complaints. Also, the tendancy of many employers to purposely keep employees from working full-time is another huge problem.

In January, Walmart pledged to do better in this area. Speaking at the National Retail Federation's annual convention, Walmart CEO Bill Simon announced that Walmart would make schedules more transparent and provide an opportunity for workers to get full-time work.

It remains to be seen whether Walmart will live up to these promises, but just the fact that Simon addressed this issue is significant. 

Walmart has changed before, when it began a real and sweeping effort to become a more sustainable company. The labor issue is a tougher one for the company and not a single Walmart store has been unionized since the company was founded in 1962. 

But history -- along with recent events -- offers some grounds for cautious optimism.