by Mitchell Hirsch
Okay, you can stop rubbing your eyes. Walmart, America’s largest private employer, announced yesterday it israising wages for about 500,000 of its workers, and setting a new minimum hourly wage of $9 in April and $10 by next February company-wide.
Walmart’s announcement comes as years of protests and one-day strikes by a growing movement of workers, organizing under the banner of OUR Walmart, put the company in the public spotlight for its poverty-level wages, poor working conditions, and onerous scheduling practices.
“Today, courageous Walmart workers who for years have been fighting for higher pay and better treatment from the nation’s largest employer have achieved something unprecedented: a commitment from Walmart to raise wages company-wide to a minimum of $10 an hour in 2016,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Few could have envisioned a group of workers forcing Walmart, ruthlessly committed to cost-cutting, to unilaterally raise wages. But, standing together, Walmart employees have done just that, providing inspiration to worker movements everywhere.”
The scope of the wage increases is significant. Walmart employs roughly 10 percent of the nation’s retail workforce, and the announced raises would affect nearly 40 percent of the company’s workers.
But the scale of the increases at Walmart still falls short. Even though a $10 minimum hourly wage appears significant when compared to the abysmal $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, for a full-time worker $10 per hour isn’t enough to keep a family of four out of poverty. In addition, the average wage for retail cashiers in 2013 was $9.81, so a $10 wage in 2016 would barely bring Walmart up to the average. And, as the Associated Press pointed out, the combined pay raises will mean that the average part-time hourly wage at Walmart will increase by fifty-two cents to just $10, while the average wage for the company’s full-time employees will increase by just fifteen cents. Costco, a leading discount competitor, already has a minimum starting wage of $12 per hour and a company-wide average wage of nearly $20 per hour.
While Walmart said it would also make some improvements to the way it schedules and assigns shifts and hours — at least for “some associates” – the company gave no assurances it would provide either regular schedules or full-time hours for those workers who want them.
“Especially without a guarantee of getting regular hours, this announcement still falls short of what American workers need to support our families,” said Emily Wells, a Walmart employee and member of OUR Walmart. “With $16 billion in profits and $150 billion in wealth for the owners, Walmart can afford to provide the good jobs that Americans need – and that means $15 an hour, full-time, consistent hours and respect for our hard work.”
Still, the fact that Walmart, the poster-child for the low-wage retail business model, would make a big deal out of announcing raises for a half a million of its lowest-paid workers is itself a big deal. The broader workers’ movement to raise wages, especially in lower-wage industries, is clearly growing and achieving some significant victories. Walmart’s announced raises are the latest win. And maybe the genie is now out of the bottle – and many more employers in retail, fast food and other service industries will be forced to raise their pay as well. Maybe a base wage of $15 per hour isn’t so farfetched or far off after all.
“We are seeing a radically shifting political and economic landscape,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie of the National Employment Law Project on All In With Chris Hayes last night on MSNBC. “Where twenty-nine states have raised the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, where cities like Seattle and San Francisco have instituted $15 an hour minimum wages, and in this environment Walmart’s $10 announcement almost seems antiquated at this point. So that’s why I think the workers are saying ‘Look, this is a great first step, and it’s welcome, but there so much more to do that we’re not going to stop.’”