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Walmart, the Elections and the Key to Democracy

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It's no secret that our fragile economy overshadowed nearly everything else during this election cycle. Big money also played a starring role in this election, perhaps even stealing the show. It's hard not to be cynical about the news that over $1 billion was spent on this election as money continues to buy influence in our current electoral system. Regardless of our financial standing or contributions, aren't we all supposed to have an equal say with our votes at the ballot box?

As I waited in line to vote, I wondered about the women and men who weren't there voting with me.Did taking time off to vote mean jeopardizing a much-needed paycheck to cover rent and groceries? Did holding multiple jobs or needing to retrieve their kids from daycare make spending a spare hour at the polls simply impossible? Would their employer not let them off work to exercise this basic, democratic right? How many people wouldn't cast a ballot because they are victims of a corporate economy whose jobs barely afford them enough to get by?

Around here, we call that the Walmart economy. As the largest private sector employer in the world, Walmart has enormous power to set trends not just for the retail, food and logistics industries, but for the economy as a whole. While the Walton family has the same wealth as the bottom 42 percent of American families combined, the company pays Walmart associates an average of $8.81 an hour. That means even full-time workers at Walmart make an average of just $15,500 a year. Wages and working conditions set at Walmart have a ripple-effect across so many jobs, making low wages, limited access to health care, and a lack of retirement security the prevailing trend.

Good jobs -- where workers have collective bargaining rights, employment security, and wages and benefits that allow their families to enjoy a decent standard of living -- are the cornerstone of building a strong, healthy economy. Yet Walmart's bottom line has no regard for the general well-being of a majority of Americans. A Walmart economy is a struggling economy for most people -- and a struggling economy weakens our democracy.

But when we give workers a voice, the Walmart economy can change. I like to say that we all do better when we all do better. In other words, if workers in Walmart factories, warehouses and stores are protected in their efforts to organize and collectively bargain with the company, we could lift the floor and improve the lives of all working people. If a Walmart job became a good job, the race to the bottom ripple effect would effectively be flipped upside down. When workers at every level of our economy are stronger, our democracy becomes more accessible to all of us.

Unfortunately, raising the bar at Walmart is no easy task. Despite attempts of workers to take their concerns to Walmart's executives at their headquarters in Arkansas and with shareholders around the country, Walmart continues to do nothing to change the systemic problems its workers face on a daily basis.

But I expect that to change soon. Over the last month, Walmart workers across the country have been making headlines by walking off job and more are expected to follow. I plan to support the men and women gearing up to take further courageous action to force Walmart to accept responsibility for its role in building a better economy. I'm standing with workers like Cayt Lawley, a hardworking Walmart associate who announced that as a member of the so-called 47 percent, she was anything but lazy. I'm standing with Angela Williamson, who was fired from Walmart for trying to balance work with caring for her grandmother. I'm standing with all of the workers in Walmart's supply and distribution chain. Despite Walmart's threats, consumers, workers' rights advocates, community groups, and local Jobs with Justice coalitions across the country will be there for workers who are standing up to live better.

Another set of long lines awaits us later this month, as the biggest retail season of the year and Black Friday approaches. There's no better time for more of us who believe in good jobs to stand together and use our collective voices to force Walmart to improve their standards as an employer and as a corporate citizen. In fact, our economy and our democracy depend on it.