Wal-Mart workers prepare to strike
The company faces uncomfortable questions about how it treats employees ahead of the important holiday season.
It is under pressure from Wall Street to improve its lackluster sales ahead of the important holiday season. Wal-Mart, the country's largest private-sector employer, has battled efforts by unions to organize its workforce for years, and has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to stop the labor action aided by the United Food and Commercial Workers International. Media reports say that a decision by the NLRB isn't expected before Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday. Union-backed OUR Walmart, has fired back at the company, accusing it of "illegally attempting to deter workers from participating in strikes against the world's largest retailer on Friday," according to Reuters.
But even if it wins the latest battle, the Bentonville, Ark., company may lose the war over the long term as tries to protect its brand.
The company brags about its low prices. But many shoppers probably don't think much about how Wal-Mart makes this slogan a reality, which may start happening given the publicity the strike is getting. The average Wal-Mart associate earns about $8.81 an hour, or a yearly wage of about $15,500, meaning that hundreds of thousands of the company's workers live below the poverty line, according to unions.
Our Walmart is seeking wages of $13 per hour, and is calling on the company to make full-time jobs available for employees who want them. The company disputes these characterizations and says on its website that it offers "competitive wages, good benefits and the chance to grow and build a career."
States worried about the growing costs of Medicaid have pressued Wal-Mart for years to improve worker benefits. In response, the company offered some benefits to those working less than 24 hours per week, only to reverse course last year and decree that new part-time employees would no longer get benefits and that people working 24 hours to 33 hours a week can no longer include their spouses in their coverage, though children are allowed.
Data from unions indicates that Wal-Mart employees are the largest recipients of government assistance among those that are employed in a huge number of states. That means that taxpayers are on the hook for these benefits to the tune of more than $1 billion.
Though it's unlikely the strike will put a dent in Wal-Mart's profits, some customers may start to wonder whether the company's low prices are worth the costs born by its employees.
--Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Story is updated to provide details on the possible timing of a strike. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.
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