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Black Friday walkout: why Wal-Mart is focus of labor's struggle

Wal-Mart's low-cost recipe for success is under attack from the threatened Black Friday walkout as workers protest low wages and benefit cuts. The retailer is fighting back, accusing organized labor of making trouble.

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Wal-Mart is the most robust example of a trend that has been growing for years, says Chris Rhomberg, assistant sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

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Increasingly, employers are refusing to negotiate with unionized workers, he says. “Low wage labor has spread throughout the economy, and income inequality has grown dramatically in the US,” he says via e-mail.

The real issue, he suggests, is what model of economic growth we should have in America.

“Should we support the low-wage, low-road model practiced by Wal-Mart, or can we promote higher wages and purchasing power to help drive our economy?” asks Professor Rhomberg, adding that the Wal-Mart strikers “have helped put that question on the public agenda.”

Wal-Mart disputes what it calls an unfair depiction of its workers' satisfaction.

“Many of our associates have urged us to do something about the UFCW's latest round of publicity stunts,” says Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg, maintaining that the vast majority of workers are satisfied. “They don't think it's right that a few associates that are being coerced by the UFCW are being portrayed by the media as representative of what it's like to work at Walmart,” he adds via e-mail.
 
Mr. Lundberg maintains the company has data that reflect worker satisfaction and retention.

He points to 250,000 associates that have worked for the company for more than 10 years as well as 165,000 hourly associates who were promoted last year. This is out of an overall Wal-Mart work force of some 1.3 million.

Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union stance is not the only force working to suppress higher wages and benefits for workers, points out Don Schroeder, a labor attorney with Mintz Levin in Boston. Civic realities are also bearing down on cities all over the nation. As the recent rollback of government workers’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin demonstrates, many small cities and towns are facing fiscal crises. 

“Many of these are headed towards insolvency as they face unfunded pension liabilities,” he says, adding that the pressures to renegotiate contracts with workers both inside and outside public services will affect the abilities of unions to make demands.

While the Wal-Mart workers are carefully avoiding demands to unionize, they are taking the fight to the court of public opinion, he notes.

“This is a very strong stand,” he says of the Wal-Mart workers, adding, “this is just the beginning of a long struggle.” 

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