Walmart strikes dramatize third-world inequities

The series of small strikes at Walmart stores around the country reminds me of the first outbreak of what became the Arab Spring, in the sense that it’s so unexpected and requires so much courage that you can’t help being astonished.  Democratic protest at Walmart is rarer than in any Arab dictatorship. Walmart, after all, is far more powerful financially than Tunisia, where the first Arab Spring protest occurred. In fact, Walmart’s $400 billion-plus revenues are about 10 times larger than the entire GDP of Tunisia.

But Walmart is very like Tunisia in two key ways: its workers tend to be impoverished while the benefits of its economic activity accrue to a tiny elite (principally, the Walton family). The World Bank reports that Tunisia is a highly unequal society:

“Tunisia continues to be a low-wage, low-value added economy, unable to absorb an increase in skilled workers. Cronyism and anticompetitive practices allowed a privileged minority to enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits of growth and prosperity.”

The striking Walmart workers’ complaints about poverty level wages contrast sharply with the Walton family’s shocking wealth, which Huffington Post (citing work by EPI’s Josh Bivens) reports is nearly $90 billion:

“I make $8.90 an hour and I’ve worked at Walmart for three years,” said Colby Harris, 22, of Dallas. “Everyone at my store lives from check to check and borrows money from each other just to make it through the week.” The six heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton, meanwhile, are worth $89.5 billion, or as much as the bottom 41.5 percent of Americans combined.

David Tovar, Walmart VP of communications, thinks the workers are happy and ought to be happy with their wages, even though hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers earn less than the poverty threshold and even two of these crushingly low salaries wouldn’t be enough to support a family without a struggle. Here’s some of what Tovar told HuffPo:

“More than half of Walmart’s one million hourly store associates have an hourly wage at least $10.00 or higher.”

“We do surveys and our associate satisfaction scores have been improving over the past couple years, which runs counter to what a few workers who show up at events that the unions put them up to would say.”

It might well be that most Walmart workers are happy to have a job that pays so poorly. After a decade of wage suppression and falling median income, many Americans expect very little from their employers. But even the $10.00 an hour wage ($20,800 a year) Walmart touts is a poverty-level wage for a family of four. The HHS 2012 poverty guidelines set $23,050 as the poverty-level income for a family of four. And even two parents with Walmart jobs paying $10.00 an hour would not earn enough to meet the $45,294 basic family budget EPI calculates would be needed for a family of four in Dallas, where Colby Harris is on strike.