Walmart workers in the United States staging walkouts across the country are the embodiment of the fight-back against growing income inequality and exclusion. For labor rights, it is a significant and historic moment: the first strike in Walmart's 50-year history in the US.
These non-unionized workers are taking their livelihoods in their hands. It started when the Walmart warehouse workers took industrial action and spread to the stores. Why? Because they have nothing left to lose. Their wages are now so low and their hours regularly cut back to the bone that they can no longer adequately feed and cloth their families or make their mortgage repayments. The tipping point may come on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Walmart workers around the country are threatening to strike on that day and the public are getting behind them. This groundswell of disapproval at Walmart's immoral treatment of its workers threatens to hit Walmart in its only vulnerable spot -- its pocket.
Around the world, Walmart workers have pledged to support their U.S. colleagues. The U.S. Walmart workers are victims of the company's virulent anti-union stance. Walmart workers in some other countries, including in Latin America, have organized unions and negotiated fairer wages and conditions collectively. Walmart workers in the U.S. deserve the same. The old model of capitalism for which Walmart is the standard bearer will be seriously examined in the coming weeks as the walk-outs multiply.
The Walmart model is preventing real growth by championing inequality. The International Monetary Fund recognizes that reducing inequality is a prerequisite of growth. IMF research presented to the IFI meetings in Tokyo last week shows that governments underestimated the impact of austerity on growth, jobs and investment. The New York Times reports that "income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression." Walmart's Bentonville boardroom are the chief beneficiaries along with the rest of the 1 percent. Where better to draw a line in the sand against inequality than with Walmart, the world's third largest public company? A family-owned business lacking family values.
Growing inequality has compelled Walmart workers to take action, and there are signs that the dark side of globalisation still threatens a total eclipse: private equity asset strippers Bain Capital have agreed to buy Spain's Telefonica's call center subsidiary Atento. This is the private equity greed formula in operation as championed by Mitt Romney, one of the founders of Bain Capital. A formula based on high management fees and higher rates of return. Rates of return on equity of more than 15 percent only made possible by cutting staff and putting the remaining workers under huge stress. Massive short-term profits at a far greater human cost. 156,000 Atento jobs are in jeopardy. Atento claims that 75 percent of its workforce is covered by collective bargaining agreements. In a year, how many of those agreements will have been torn up by Bain? Atento workers and union leaders are organizing now because they know what is in store. Last week Bain was at it again, shutting down the Sensata Technologies plant in Freeport, Ill., and moving its operations to China with the loss of 170 U.S. jobs. Sensata workers demanding fair severance pay were out on the streets protesting. Romney has made it clear what he thinks of them and the rest of the "47 percent." He and the asset-stripping fraternity have got rich precisely by holding working people down and forcing millions into unemployment.
The cracks in society are showing. The Occupy movement opened up a fissure and others including the Walmart workers are chipping away. This is a global fight-back, not one isolated to a country or a continent. In London during the weekend 150,000 people marched and rallied as part of the UK Trades Union Congress's "A Future That Works" demonstration against the government's austerity measures. Plainly the UK government's present plan does not work with a 1000 shop closures in the country because people no longer have any spending power due to the cuts. Anti-austerity demonstrations are spreading in Greece, Spain, Portugal and beyond. November 14th will see a day of action across Europe. These protests will not go away until governments rectify growing inequality. If not, perversely, it may be the 1 percent who will bring the whole economic edifice down because as the history of civilisations shows corruption and greed have a sell by date. Ask a Walmart worker.
The UNI Walmart Global Union Alliance was launched on the day of the first strike in the United States in Walmart's 50-year history. UNI is also poised to launch a global alliance to fight for the jobs of the Atento workers who may face lay-offs once the Bain deal is approved.