WASHINGTON (PAI) – Chicago Walmart worker Bene’t Holmes told her story today to fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama. He didn’t like what he heard.
Holmes, one of hundreds of workers who traveled from around the nation for today’s White House Summit On Working Families, explained to the president about how Walmart mistreated her when she was pregnant. It led her to join Our Walmart, an organization – not a union – of Walmart workers dedicated to public pressure on the monster retailer.
Their objective: To get Walmart to give its full-time workers full-time hours, to achieve pay of at least $25,000 yearly with decent benefits – and to get the right to organize without the anti-worker retailer’s interference and constant labor law-breaking.
Holmes told the President that in February she suffered a miscarriage while at work, after a manager denied her request for job duties that were less physically demanding. Following her miscarriage, she asked for a leave of absence to recover and was denied that request as well. That inhuman response led her to join Our Walmart.
Workers at the White House gathering told other such stories to President Obama, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the labor movement’s highest-ranking woman, reported today. They highlighted the need to help working women in particular, she said, to raise their wages, increase their benefits, overcome job discrimination – and get an ironclad right to unionize to achieve those goals.
“But when the speeches are done, the focus of national news wanes and the participants all go home, it won’t have been enough to have had a successful discussion about important topics,” Shuler warned. “We have to be ready to build on the momentum of the important discussion and turn these from exceptional examples into real, everyday practices. It’s crucial that we help working families who are quickly falling further and further behind.
“This is a challenge that is personal to me, because it wasn’t that long ago when I was piecing together part-time jobs, struggling to find my way into work that would lead to a career. And in my early years of working to help clerical workers organize to gain better wages and benefits, I saw firsthand how intimidating it can be for workers to even ask for a better deal, much less demand one.” Shuler helped organize West Coast workers for IBEW in Oregon.
The unionists at the summit, she said, emphasized three key ways to help working women and their families. One is to create equal opportunity, by raising earnings and passing legislation – such as the Equal Pay Act – giving working women the leverage to force employers to do so.
“It’s almost a cliché, but the stubborn reality is that women are the sole or primary breadwinners for a record 40 percent of all U.S. households,” Shuler said. “If we brought women’s earnings in line with what men earn, working women below the poverty line would see a bump in average yearly wages of about $11,600, enough to make a huge difference in their lives, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“Moreover, women face pregnancy discrimination, and also hold a majority of the jobs that do not offer paid leave or paid sick leave. Basic paid leave laws would ensure workers don’t have to choose between staying home to recover and having their pay reduced.”
The second way, Shuler said, is to demand and get a fair deal for low-wage workers, including the one-million-plus Walmart workers and the hundreds of thousands of fast-food, tipped workers, and retail workers nationwide. Those occupations are majority-female – as is Walmart – and the lowest-paid, federal data show.
Raising the minimum wage, now $7.25 hourly, to $10.10 and indexing to it inflation after 2016, as the president proposes and labor campaigns for, would help lift the women and families out of poverty, Shuler said.
“Over the past few years, low-wage workers have been among the fastest-growing segments of the job market, and until we get them a better deal, the United States will continue to swell the ranks of the working poor,” she added.
The unionists will also emphasize the third way to raise women’s wages: Strengthening the right to organize.
“Unions have been a frequent and convenient target for Big Business, politicians and others in the recent past, but the reality is that collective action and joining an union have resulted in higher wages and better conditions for workers across the board,” Shuler said. A new study puts “the union advantage” of wages and benefits for working women at 22 percent.
“In fact, union membership is one way women in the workforce are moving toward achieving wage parity with men,” Shuler added. Federal data show the median wage for a working woman is 77 cents for every dollar the median man earns. But unionized working women’s median wages are 90 cents per unionized man’s dollar – and both are at least $200 weekly higher than the median wages of non-union men and women.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez agrees with the unionists, even if the ruling Republicans in Congress don’t.
“Let’s never forget that having a voice at work – having the right to organize and join a union – is absolutely essential to securing the wages, benefits and flexibility that both women and men need,” Perez told a recent regional summit which preceded the White House confab.
“The labor movement is one of American history’s most powerful forces for upward mobility and economic security. There is a direct link between the strength of the labor movement and the vitality of the middle class,” Perez declared.
Photo: Bene’t Holmes joins in with a Phoenix-area Walmart demonstration. MakingChangeatWalmart.org