by Sarah Jaffe
(June 4) Walmart, the world’s largest retailer (and America’s largest private employer), occupies a rather strange place in the business landscape: a technologically innovative company with a down-home reputation – a low-wage, low-benefit employer that prides itself on a family atmosphere. Walmart masks the lousy working conditions that make its profits with its particular form of market populism: millions of “Walmart moms” can’t be wrong for wanting to “save money, live better”, can they?
But Wednesday, as the company’s shareholders prepare to meet in Bentonville, Arkansas, a bunch of Walmart moms are aiming at the company’s already-shaky public perception. According to the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (Our Walmart), mothers who work at Walmart stores in more than 20 cities nationwide are on strike. They’re taking a common media trope and a key part of the company’s own public image and turning it on its head: Walmart, they say, is not a good place for mothers.
It’s not just the low wages (although a raise wouldn’t hurt): a new study out this week from the non-partisan think tank Demos highlights more than just the difference a raise to $25,000 a year would make for Walmart’s workers and others in the retail sector. Amy Traub at Demos looked at the effects of erratic scheduling – specifically on women who hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the sector – and concluded:
The impact of scheduling can be profound: without a stable and predictable work schedule, incomes fluctuate and workers cannot budget effectively.
Women, even when they’re also the family’s primary breadwinner, still do the majority of unpaid household labor – particularly labor focused on care, such as looking after children or other family members. So it’s especially important for women to have reliable schedules. As Demos’s Traub points out, “Ever-shifting schedules mean working mothers cannot plan child care arrangements. As a result, they may lose the opportunity to work a much needed shift (or the job itself) if they cannot arrange last-minute child care.”
Gail Todd, who works at the Walmart in Landover Hills, Maryland, knows this struggle all too well. A mother of three, she used to have an “open schedule” – meaning she had to be available to work anytime, day or night – so childcare was a constant problem. But when Todd limited her work available to care for her children, her hours got cut back, sometimes to as few as 12 per seven days.
It’s hard to support one person – let alone a family – on $130 a week.
Women have long made up the majority of part-time workers. Feminist scholar Kathi Weeks argued that “Work time, including ‘full-time’, ‘part-time’, and ‘overtime’, is a gendered construct,” based on the ideal of a male breadwinner working outside the home and women – if they left the home at all – only needing to pick up a few extra dollars. As Bethany Moreton wrote in To Serve God and Wal-Mart, the original Walmart fortune was built on the backs of those women – often southern farm wives who had never worked for a wage before – who didn’t want to be full-time and didn’t expect to bring home much money.
The old sexist idea that women only needed “pin money” helped keep jobs like those at Walmart low-paid (and contributed to the scant hours), even as these jobs became ubiquitous throughout the economy and more people came to rely on them for their entire income – Demos, for instance, notes that retail sales is the most common job sector in America now.
The Walmart moms are calling for a minimum salary of $25,000 a year, not an hourly wage. With a call for a base-level wage, they’re not just challenging their erratic schedules but also harkening back to an old labor movement demand: the demand for fewer hours at the same rate of pay. If Walmart can’t provide full-time work, it should still provide a decent living, and Traub’s research shows that meeting such demands is not likely to scratch Walmart’s profit margins.
Last year at the annual shareholders’ meeting, Walmart women challenged the company’s policy on pregnant workers and won a change. This year, they’re doubling down, calling for an end to retaliation against mothers like Tiffany Beroid (who joined in the Black Friday strikes last Thanksgiving and says she was fired for taking action to protest her working conditions) and highlighting working women’s struggles for fair treatment, scheduling and better pay in order to challenge the family-friendly image the retailer has tried to cultivate.
The willingness of these mothers to strike is not only a stronger challenge to the company’s power than just holding a protest: it is a powerful claim to their own time. It underscores the problems they have with the company in the first place – that these jobs are bad for women, bad for their families, and bad for everyone.
Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe. This post appeared on Alternet.