This article appears in the ...
Tree elves, chupacabras, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory, and Walmart unionization: Which are you least likely to see during your lifetime? Unless you're conspiratorial or put undue faith in the Cubbie's bullpen, unionization is the clear favorite.
The low odds for organized labor at the country's largest employer are saddening, and not just because of the triumvirate of low wages, poor benefits, and ludicrous working hours that collective bargaining would help dismantle. Gender discrimination -- something that often gets short shrift in the national discussion -- could find its foil in unions.
Claims of Walmart's discrimination have a statistical basis. New male hires on average make $0.38 more per hour than their female counterparts; that differential increases to $1.38 after five years. 65% of Walmart employees are women, but only 33% are promoted to managerial positions. For women who aspire to be an assistant manager, it takes an average of 4.38 years to get promoted, versus 2.86 years for men. All of this, despite a statistical basis for superior job performance from women.
These data come from a statistician's testimony during the class-action lawsuit Dukes v. Walmart, which was killed by the Supreme Court in 2011. The ruling established a disheartening precedent: Even if discrimination exists, said the conservative majority on the court, and a discriminatory corporate culture exists, who can say if corporate culture was responsible for the discrimination encountered by every single one of the women involved in the lawsuit?
The ruling means that the courts won't yield change. That leaves unionization as one of the only realistic avenues for progress.
Rosie the Riveter's poster-emblazoned mantra has been echoed by progressives ever since the 1940s: "A woman's place is in her union."
While the wording could warrant an update (Declaring where a woman's place lies rings a smidge problematic), the message bespeaks an important truth: Unions boast a history of closing pay disparities between disenfranchised groups, like women and minorities, and their peers. In the same vein, unionized women make 31% more than their non-unionized counterparts, and are twice as likely to receive benefits like health insurance or a pension.
The fruits of organized labor have been impossible to enjoy for Walmart employees -- the company's stringent anti-union policy has seen to that. On their first day, all new employees are required to watch a video touting the corporation's history of non-unionism, and when levels of dissatisfaction run high, it is routine for higher-ups to dissuade -- or more accurately, to intimidate -- workers.
A group of Walmart butchers in Texas successfully filed with the NLRB in 2000; the corporation responded by closing all in-store butchery departments.
What about the recent groundswell of protests and pickets?
For now, at least, they change nothing. The big Black Friday pickets hardly ignited a consumer revolution, and even if they had, the group responsible, OUR Walmart, explicitly told the NLRB that unionization is not a goal (although their major funder, the United Food and
Commercial Workers, has aimed to do so for decades).
Nevertheless, there does seem to be a movement in the making. Even though shoppers still stormed Walmart in droves, the Black Friday picket was successful in other ways.
Never before have there been employee demonstrations so large and widespread, garnering so much media attention.
Workers are excited with OUR Walmart's potential, and it's likely that future activity will grow in scope.
So rest easy, cryptozoologists and Cubs fans -- you're still more likely to see your dreams come true than Walmart employees. But maybe in the foreseeable future, there will be a shift in the odds. For the sake of the short-changed women of Walmart, let's hope so.
Now's a great time to subscribe to The Progressive magazine. You'll get a FREE copy of our 2013 "Hidden History of the United States" calendar when you subscribe for just $14.97 for the whole year. That's 75% off the newsstand price, and the calendar is yours for free. Just click here.