WASHINGTON – Fatmata Jabbie has two children. She left Saudi Arabia looking for a better life for her and her family. Yet, she did not find the American Dream. Some of her colleagues say that she arrived here too late: the American Dream is gone, is a myth from the past, at least for them.
Fatmata has worked for almost one year at Wal-Mart, for $8 an hour.
She can’t even plan her monthly budget in advance, since her working schedule is erratic and varies from one week to the next.
“I can work 20 hours one week,” she explains, “and 34, 12 or 16 the following one.”
This is a common situation in the retail industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President Joe Hansen.
Fatmata’s story is common too. Changing name, sex, country of origin and a few details, one can have the story of hundreds of Wal-Mart employees who claim they do not earn enough to provide for themselves and their family and rely on social programs to make ends meet.
About 200 people gathered on October 16 to change these stories. They asked the company for a $15 dollar-per-hour wage and full-time employment. They asked for a living wage, chanting slogans like “No justice, No peace,” and “What do we want? Respect! When do we want it? Now!”
Several workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said that many of their colleagues did not join the rally only because they feared recriminations. “Cutting your working hours is one way management can punish you when you take part in a rally or speak up,” they said.
The Walton family created a wage crisis in our country. They hurt you on purpose to make themselves richer.There comes a time when we won’t take it anymore – Richard Trumka
The rally – Sixteen protesters were arrested when they blocked K Street, outside the office of the Walton Family Foundation, and refused to leave without an official commitment from the Waltons to raise the wages. They were ticketed and then released.
Before the arrests, some workers had tried to deliver a petition to the Foundation, but they were told that the office was closed and asked to leave. The document, signed by workers from 1,710 Wal-Mart stores throughout the country, demands the billionaires to publicly commit to raise the wage up to $15 per hour and guarantee full-time hours.
Similar protests took place the same day in New York, where 26 people were arrested as they blocked Park Avenue, in front of Alice Walton’s penthouse, and the day before in Phoenix, Arizona, where the petition was delivered to the company chair Rob Walton.
The sit-in was the last stop of the Walmart workers’ rally, started a few hours before in 16th Street, outside the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO).
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) joined the rally, along with local and regional officials and unions. She asked Wal-Mart to listen to the workers: “The two biggest employers in the U.S. are the federal government and Wal-Mart,” she said. “One is responding to workers and the other needs taxpayer subsidies, such as food stamps, to sustain its workers.”
In February, President Obama issued an Executive Order to raise the minimum wage for federal workers to $10.10 per hour.
“There is only one entity big enough to do anything about inequality in America: the Congress of the United States of America,” said the congresswoman, who called her colleagues for an immediate action.
A two-year long battle – Wal-Mart workers, and other fast-food and retail workers, have protested for two years. One of the first protests took place on Black Friday of 2012.
They ask for higher wages, certain schedules, full-time employment and affordable health care. The latter point has been heavily discussed in the past few weeks. On October, 7 Sally Welborn, Wal-Mart’s Senior Vice President of Global Benefits, wrote in a blog post that “like every company, Wal-Mart continues to face rising health care costs. This year, the expenses were significant and led us to make some tough decisions as we begin our annual enrollment.”
The company plans to cut the health insurance coverage for about 30,000 part-time workers and raise the premium for all its associates. This is a major concern among workers. So far, only part of the them know how they will be affected by this plan.
Black Friday 2014 could be the next step of this confrontation. Wal-Mart workers are planning mass protests nationwide during that day, unless the management listens to their claims.
A symbol of social inequality – For many people, the confrontation between the Walton family and their employees is the emblematic representation of social inequality in the U.S. According to Forbes, the Waltons are the richest family in the United States: they are worth $152 billion, $63 billion more than the Koch family, the second richest American family.
Since 1983, their fortune has increased by 6,700 percent.
And this fortune passes to the heirs with little taxation. As Bloomberg revealed in an investigation published in September 2013, the Walton family “has exploited a variety of legal loopholes to avoid the estate tax,” thus passing “money to their heirs tax-free.”
Early in October, the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank backed by the unions, released a report featuring a comparison, over the past 30 years, between the Walton family and American families earning the median income. According to this report, in 1983 it took 62,000 American families to equal the Waltons. In 2013, this number exceeded 1,7 million.
Most Wal-Mart employees earn less than $ 25,000 per year.
“I have been a Wal-Mart associate for 14 years and I still don’t make $25,000 a year,” said Cyndi Murray, one of the protesters. “Wal-Mart can and must be the example and change its business practice, so that all Wal-Mart workers and family can make ends meet. Until this happens, workers like me will continue to speak out for better wages and respect on the job,” she said.
Some of them rely on food stamp and other taxpayer-funded assistance programs, such as public health care. A report released in June 2013 by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated that a single Wal-Mart could cost taxpayers about $1 million.
Wal-Mart criticized the report, saying that it “is politically driven, flawed in its methodology, relies on unrealistic scenarios and, above all, is simply incorrect.”
In December 2013, President Obama defined the combination of increased inequality and decreasing mobility “a fundamental threat to the American Dream” and “the defining challenge of our time.”
For many Wal-Mart employees the American Dream is already gone. Now, it is just a matter of subsistence.