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Look Who's Changing Walmart

Amy Traub

What does it take to change the business model of a multinational corporation that brings in nearly half a trillion dollars in revenue each year?  You’d have to ask Walmart workers.

In the last week alone, workers organizing with OUR Walmart claimed victory on two major fronts, shifting the company’s policies to ensure basic respect for pregnant employees and to improve scheduling for all hourly employees, giving them more opportunities to get the work hours they need to meet basic expenses.  

Both moves were preceded by years of agitation by Walmart employees and their allies, from the strikes that shook Walmart stores throughout the country on Black Friday 2012 and 2013 demanding better pay and more hours to the petitions, shareholder resolution, pregnancy discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a host of other actions by Walmart employees and their allies to change the company’s unfair policies.

For its part, Walmart asserts it succumbed to no pressure from outside the corporate boardroom. Changing policy toward workers with difficult pregnancies was simply “the right thing to do for our associates,” a Walmart spokesperson told Bloomberg Businessweek.  And it would be “inaccurate” to describe the move to make work hours more accessible to part-time employees a response to workers’ protests, another Walmart spokesperson informed Huffington Post.

In that case, Walmart workers might as well pipe down now. If their past actions had no impact on the company’s decisions, there’s no point in continuing to call for more full-time work opportunities, further scheduling improvements, fairness for pregnant workers who haven’t suffered disabilities but need accommodation to stay healthy, or a fair wage of at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. It’s certainly not worth noting, as I did last week, that taxpayers subsidize Walmart’s tremendous profits by enabling it to pay so little that many of its workers qualify for food stamps. Everyone should just keep their head down and get back to the job. That’s certainly what Walmart would prefer.

The good news is, it’s not going to happen. Emboldened by their victories on pregnancy discrimination and scheduling issues, Walmart employees are likely to work harder than ever to move the nation’s largest employer on critical concerns like pay and advancement. 

Another case in point: last month, McDonald’s admitted that strike actions by its workers and their allies might ultimately force it to raise wages.  Walmart is making no such admission. But in its case, actions speak far louder than words.