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A Very Walmart Thankless-Giving - The Potentially Devastating Economic Impact of the Retailer's Low Wages

Unlike its tens of thousands of employees who live beneath the poverty line, Walmart executives will be chowing on sumptuous meals with their families in the wealthy enclaves of Bentonville, Arkansas, this Thanksgiving.

Peter Rugh

Anthony Goytia, whose yearly income is only $12,000 as a Walmart associate.

When Anthony Goytia sits down with his wife and three children for Thanksgiving dinner in East Los Angeles, he's going to be chewing out of one side of his mouth. With every bite he takes of his meal, provided by a local food pantry, he will be thinking of his employer.

Anthony makes about $12,000 a year working nearly full-time as an “associate” for Walmart. With worldwide revenues totaling $443.9 billion in 2012, Walmart tops the Fortune 500 list, yet Anthony can't afford the $20-a-month premiums on the insurance plan Walmart provides. So, when his molar started to make him moan this October, a root canal operation wasn't an option.

That's not all. To scrape by, he's taken out payday loans just to pay-off other payday loans. When his car radiator busted earlier this fall he began bicycling 13 miles a day to and from work, because he couldn't afford the repair bill. Anthony even sells his plasma at $55 a pop and participates in clinical treatments for his psoriasis in order to earn extra cash and feed his kids.

“My mother taught me how to stretch meals with potatoes,” he told me, but canned tuna and ramen noodles are the staple foods in Anthony’s household.

Anthony is not alone. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Walmart associates who earn wages that leave them surfing the poverty line. The pay is so abysmal that one Walmart manager in Canton, Ohio, recently asked employees to contribute to a holiday food drive for its own staff.

In contrast to Anthony and tens of thousands like him, Walmart executives will be sitting down to plush meals with their families in the wealthy enclaves surrounding Bentonville, Arkansas, near the retailer's corporate headquarters. Mike Duke, who this week announced he is stepping down as the company's CEO, will now get to tuck into a $113 million retirement package—that's 6,000 times what the average Walmart employee has in his or her 401(k) account.

Mike and his family say they are very grateful for all the blessings God has bestowed upon them. In an interview appearing in Celebrate Arkansas this month, Mike's wife Susan said her family lives by Luke 12:48: “To whom much has been given, much will be expected; for whom much has been entrusted, much more will be asked.”

Through their local church, Susan said she and her husband support numerous charities including The Jesus Film Project—which sponsors screenings of the 1979 movie Jesus—and Feed My Children. As Anthony bikes to work his 12-hour shift at Walmart this Black Friday, he will be hoping for just that: to feed his children.

“We're approaching the season of giving,” said Reverend Holly Beaumont, the organizing director for Interfaith Worker Justice New Mexico, in a conference call that included many community and religious leaders who have joined a campaign for a living wage of $25,000 a year at Walmart. “But charity can never replace justice and when it does it becomes a sin.”

“It sickens me,” added Sarah Halverson, pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa, California, “that Walmart is using the image of Christ to make money and they refuse to share that money with their employees.”

On Black Friday last year, protests from associates like Anthony broke out at Walmarts nationwide.

At first, Walmart dismissed the rallies and strikes, labeling them “made-for-TV events” in a press release while asserting that the number of AWOL associates was “more than 60 percent less” than Black Friday the year before. But, much like Anthony's toothache, the calls for reform at Walmart have refused to dissipate and now they are starting to cause the retail giant financial and PR pain.

On November 18, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of 117 employees who were terminated for participating in strikes and protests against their employer. Unless an independent settlement is reached, the decision will likely see Walmart reinstating and providing financial compensation to make up for the lost wages of the renegade associates it let go.

The strikes are back again this year. Walkouts ahead of this year's Christmas shopping bonanza have taken place at Walmart outlets this month in Los Angeles, Dallas, Sacramento, Miami, Seattle, Chicago, and, on Tuesday, in Washington, DC.

“Going on strike wasn't an easy decision for me,” said Anthony, who in addition to walking out on November 6, also took part in a sit-down protest on Cezar Chavez Boulevard in LA that led to his arrest. “My ability to pay rent and feed my family is at stake. I want Walmart to look me and my kids in the face.”

Kalpona Akter, who worked in a Dhaka sweatshop as a child and now heads the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.

Dorian Warren, a labor analyst at Columbia University, argues that the labor battles at Walmart this holiday season could impact the fate of America's future economy. He compares the strikes shaking the mega-outlet with post-WWII labor battles that rattled General Motors, which was then America's largest employer, as Walmart is today.

“Walmart is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with America's economy today, just as General Motors was back then,” he said. In November 1945, approximately a quarter-million members of the United Automobile Workers union walked off the job, starting a strike that would lead to a 17.5-percent wage increase at GM plants by the following March and inspire strikes in other sectors—coal, oil, steel—that helped ensure more Americans got a slice of the post-war boom.

Today, as the stock market dances upon record bluffs, the median US household income is 8.3 percent lower than what it was before the 2008 Wall Street crash, according to the latest census data. The bulk of jobs recovered in this recession have been low-wage service sector jobs, like those Walmart. With 1.3 million associates under its thumb, what happens at Walmart could have implications far beyond the sliding glass entryways of the box stores.

Striking Walmart associates are not only going up against the world's largest company but also one the globe's shadiest. A report released Wednesday from the Center for Media Justice accuses the retailer of collecting personal electronic data on 145 million American consumers, tracking online purchases and using shoppers smartphones to monitor their movements in Walmart superstores. The Center for Corporate Policy, earlier this week, cited Walmart as one of a number of corporations that have engaged in espionage, noting that the company has tailed activists seeking to raise wages.

Meanwhile, Walmart is under fire from environmental groups for emitting 21 million metric tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases per year, while Mike and other execs are under investigation from the Justice Department and the Securities Exchange Commission for bribing officials in Mexico. Amid growing labor unrest in Bangladesh, garment workers, too, are shaking their fists at the retailer.

“We want the same thing workers in this country want,” said Kalpona Akter who worked in a Dhaka sweatshop as a child and now heads the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. “We want dignity. We want a decent wage, a living wage, and we want safe working conditions.” Many garment factories in Bangladesh are “death traps,” Kalpona said.

She is among a number of labor leaders calling on the Walmart to compensate the families of the 117 garment workers who burned to death in the Tarzeen factory while filling clothing orders for the retailer and other US retailers one year ago, and for Walmart to sign an international labor practice agreement that will raise pay and safety standards at its suppliers. So far, however, said Kalpona, “Walmart has given us nothing to be thankful for.”

@JohnReedsTomb