Hungry for a living wage

Corporate America thinks low-wage workers need "advice" on how to manage their finances--but what they really need is a living wage, writes Nicole Colson.

A Walmart worker at the checkout lineA Walmart worker at the checkout line

FEELING PINCHED for money with the holidays approaching? Never fear--Corporate America is here to help.

Consider the recent food drive at a Walmart store in Canton, Ohio, designed to collect items to help those struggling to put food on the table for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The only problem: Those struggling were workers at the very same Walmart. "Please donate food items here so that associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner," read the sign attached to collection bins in the store.

Walmart is America's largest private employer and ranked first on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. corporations for 2012. All told, company profits last year amounted to a fat $17 billion.

Every Walmart worker could afford a fine Thanksgiving feast if they received a fraction of what they deserved from those profits. But the company been a consistent leader in corporate earnings precisely because the jobs it offers its employees are built on poverty wages, no benefits and unending hostility to even a whiff of union activity.

According to Fortune magazine's Stephen Gandel, former Walmart CEO Mike Duke was paid $23.2 million last year--1,034 times more than the company's average worker. After crunching the numbers, even Gandel had to conclude, "Walmart's workers should get a 50 percent raise. And get this: The company wouldn't even have to disappoint Wall Street to pull it off."

As The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert put it, the food drive is proof that "Walmart is taking care of its employees. Not 'living wage' care, but 'can of peas' care."

Of course, as Colbert also pointed out, Walmart wasn’t really taking care of anybody out of the kindness of its heart--or, more accurately, the depths of its own pockets. The bins put out for food items weren't collecting from the company or its executives, but instead from fellow employees and Walmart shoppers. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Olivia Perkins:

Norma Mills of Canton, who lives near the store, saw the photo circulating showing the food drive bins, and felt both "outrage" and "anger."

"Then I went through the emotion of compassion for the employees, working for the largest food chain in America, making low wages, and who can't afford to provide their families with a good Thanksgiving holiday," said Mills, an organizer with Stand Up for Ohio, which is active in foreclosure issues in Canton. "That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers--to me, it is a moral outrage."

And it gets worse: More Walmart employees will be missing Thanksgiving dinner entirely this year, along with other retail workers--they will have to work as retailers like Walmart push up traditional "Black Friday" shopping times by opening on Thanksgiving day itself.

Yet with just a fraction of the combined $136 billion personal wealth of four Walton family members--numbers six through nine on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans--not a single Walmart store associate or warehouse worker or anyone in their extended families would go hungry on Thanksgiving. In fact, the four Waltons have more wealth than the poorest 40 percent of American families--or 49 million--combined.

As the United Food and Commercial Workers union-backed Making Change at Walmart Coalition noted:

As the largest private employer in the United States and the world, Walmart is setting the standard for jobs. That standard is so low that hundreds of thousands of its employees are living in poverty--even many that work full-time. The problems extend to workers who toil in unsafe working conditions in subcontracted warehouses. And also to workers in developing countries such as China and Bangladesh, who make incredibly low wages while manufacturing the goods on Walmart's shelves. That pulls down standards for workers in the United States and around the globe...

The average full time Walmart "associate" makes about $15,500 a year. And worse, Walmart is pushing more and more workers toward a permanent part-time status.

According to Mother Jones, "The average Walmart worker making $8.81 per hour would have to work for 7 million years to acquire the Walton family's current wealth."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT IF it's hunger that you're worried about this holiday season, don't worry--fast-food giant McDonald's also has some helpful hints.

Recently, the company's "McResource Line" website advised workers how to cope with hunger, health and personal finances. Their advice included gems like: "At least two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50 percent"; "Singing along to your favorite songs can lower your blood pressure"; "Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full"; and "Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash."

As absurd as it may seem that workers at the largest and most profitable fast-food chain in the country could be going hungry during the holidays, McDonald's workers aren't alone.

A study published in late October by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center and the University of Illinois found that 52 percent of families of front-line fast-food workers were enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, compared with 25 percent of the workforce as a whole. As a result, taxpayers spend some $7 billion each year subsidizing the wages and benefits of fast-food workers.

That same month, McDonald's worker Nancy Salgado, who has worked for the chain for 10 years, called the company's McResource Line to ask for help. When she told the adviser on the other end of the line that she was having problems making ends meet--including not being able to pay for medical care for her children and having to ration food--she was given tips on...how to apply for various government programs.

Walmart, too, has been caught advising low-wage employees on how to apply for government assistance programs.

Salgado was arrested in October--after confronting McDonald's President Jeff Stratton as he made a speech at Chicago's Union League Club. Salgado shouted at Stratton, "It's really hard for me to feed my two kids and struggle day to day. Do you think this is fair--that I have to be making $8.25 when I've worked for McDonald's for 10 years?"

Stratton--who is estimated to make $2.5 million a year--replied: "I've been there for 40 years," before Salgado was arrested and hauled out of the room.

Could McDonald's afford to give its workers a raise? Of course.

Like Walmart, McDonald's corporate profits are built on paying employees "McWages"--little more than minimum wage, with few, if any, benefits. The average McDonald's wage is $7.81 an hour--yet in 2012, the company ranked number 107 on the Fortune 500 list, with total profits of $5.5 billion.

As Salgado told The Real News' Jessica Desvarieux following her arrest: "[Stratton] needs to know what all the employees at McDonald's are going through. We're struggling day to day to provide our needs in our houses, things for our kids. And it's just harder and harder with just the poverty wage they have us living on."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ACROSS THE country, millions of low-wage workers know the same fear and uncertainty that Nancy Salgado is facing.

According to a new Washington Post-Miller Center poll, more than six in 10 workers surveyed "worry that they will lose their jobs to the economy, surpassing concerns in more than a dozen surveys dating to the 1970s. Nearly one in three, 32 percent, say they worry 'a lot' about losing their jobs, also a record high."

This represents "unprecedented economic anxiety," according to the Post, four years into an economic "recovery" by official standards.

According to the poll, 85 percent of workers in families making less than $35,000 a year in household income "fear that their families' income will not be enough to meet expenses, up 25 points from a 1971 survey asking an identical question. Thirty-two percent say they worry all the time about meeting expenses, a number that has almost tripled since the 1970s."

According to the Post, such anxieties transcend political divides:

Americans' economic perceptions often divide along political lines; supporters of the incumbent president are usually more optimistic about the job market and the health of the economy. But that's not the case with this new anxiety. Once you control for economic and demographic factors, there is no partisan divide. There's no racial divide, either, and no gender gap. It also doesn't matter where you live.

Then again, why should people who identify as Democrats have any faith in Obama delivering jobs or higher wages? The bankers who wrecked the economy got away scot-free, and corporate profits have continued to soar--these are hallmarks of Barack Obama's years in office.

Recently, Obama announced plans to seek an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. But while any increase would be welcome for the millions of workers, it's an unquestionably moderate pledge that would make far less of a dent in poverty than most people realize. And the $10.10 an hour level is guaranteed to be bargained down by Republicans and Corporate America, if it ever comes to a vote at all.

In mid-November, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez met with low-wage workers from across the country and told them: "No one who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty."

That's interesting, given that Perez just announced that he's hiring a former top PR executive from--wait for it--McDonald's as a senior adviser. According to Mother Jones magazine, Ofelia Casillas worked as a national media relations manager for McDonald's before being hired by Perez. Part of her job included handling "crises" for the fast food company, including strikes by low-wage workers in the Fight for 15 campaign.

According to the magazine, "During a national strike in August, in which workers were demanding that fast-food joints pay a $15 an hour minimum wage, Casillas told Bloomberg that the strikers were not 'providing an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's.'"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT ALSO like Nancy Salgado, thousands of low-wage workers across the U.S. are deciding that they're fed up with being fed up--and they're organizing to demand a living wage.

In campaigns like the Organization United for Respect Walmart (OUR Walmart) campaign and Fight for 15, low-wage workers from retail and fast-food chains have taken action with strikes and protests in recent months, backed by an outpouring of labor and community support. In some cases, it may be just a handful of workers--or even just one--walking off the job to demand a living wage and respect. In other cases, it's larger groups.

These actions are another face of the simmering anger at corporate greed and the injustice of corporations making billions while keeping them in poverty--the very same sentiments that drove the bitter reaction to the revelations about food donations at the Canton Walmart. As the Plain Dealer's Perkins noted:

[A]n employee at the Canton store wasn't feeling that Walmart was looking out for her when she went to her locker more than two weeks ago and discovered the food drive containers. To her, the gesture was proof the company acknowledged many of its employees were struggling, but also proof it was not willing to substantively address their plight.

The employee said she didn't want to use her name for fear of being fired. In a dozen years working at the company, she had never seen a food drive for employees, which she described as "demoralizing" and "kind of depressing." The employee took photos of the bins, and sent them to the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, the group of associates holding the strikes in Cincinnati and Dayton.

"Why would a company do that?" asked OUR Walmart's Vanessa Ferreira. "The company needs to stand up and give them their 40 hours and a living wage, so they don't have to worry about whether they can afford Thanksgiving."

Walmart workers are planning walkouts, protests and a boycott this Black Friday to build on similar actions last year. These demonstrations may not do much to hurt the corporation's bottom line, but they are part of building solidarity and support for the right of workers to demand a living wage.

On November 25, Walmart workers in Miami and Brooklyn Center, Minn., walked off the job, following actions in Tampa, Fla., on November 23, and strikes in Sacramento, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and cities in Ohio earlier in the month. In Chicago, workers at a Whole Foods store are planning a strike on November 27, including a rally with members and supporters of the OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 campaigns.

Such actions are a start in sending a message to Corporate America: We don't want charity--we want living wages and benefits.

In the "spirit of giving" this holiday season, we should demand that companies like Walmart and McDonald's be the first to give--by providing their workers with the living wage they so desperately need.