Demanding equality at Wal-Mart

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The National Organization for Women (NOW) lived up to its activist, “in-the-street” tradition at its national conference here last weekend. Delegates and guests took to their feet and grabbed their picket signs following a speech from United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Vice President Susan Phillips.

Retail sales account for one of every five jobs in the U.S., Phillips told NOW delegates and guests, and are the leading source of employment for non-college-educated women. Cashier is the growing job title in the U.S.

With 3,100 stores and 1 million workers, 72 percent of whom are women, Wal-Mart pushed out GM and GE as the largest corporation in the world. However, there is an “iron ceiling” at Wal-Mart – only a third of the managers are women. On average, retail workers are paid $9 an hour or $18,720 a year, but at Wal-Mart workers are paid an average of $10,920 a year, $3,000 below the poverty line. Only 40 percent of Wal-Mart workers can afford to participate in the company’s health care plan; 80 percent can afford the pension plan, which is an undefined plan invested in the stock market. “Or do I hear Enron?” Phillips remarked. Only the federal government is sued more than Wal-Mart, with charges of sexual harassment and discrimination, violations of child labor laws, Labor Board violations and exclusion of contraceptive health coverage at the top of the stack.

“We are going to organize Wal-Mart, with your help,” said Phillips. “Wal-Mart is dragging down the wages of all retail workers across the country. We need to join hands with our sisters across the cash register and build a national movement of women talking about their paychecks and dignity at work!”

The busloads of conference participants marched to the front doors of a Wal-Mart store and held a short rally in the driveway, and distributed flyers and brochures. Fists went up supporting Wal-Mart workers and NOW’s efforts and several cars turned around and left the parking lot as speakers addressed shoppers and NOW members.

The conference named Wal-Mart a “Merchant of Shame,” part of NOW’s Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign, a project demanding equal rights on the job. “NOW’s campaign spurred Smith Barney, Mitsubishi Motors and other leading corporations to work toward creating truly women-friendly and family-friendly workplaces,” NOW President Kim Gandy told reporters.

“We’re shining a spotlight on Wal-Mart’s workplace abuses,” she continued. “This is a public pressure campaign against one of the largest employers in the U.S. The women and men of Wal-Mart deserve a workplace that respects their rights. Consumers across the country need to be able to spend their dollars with a clear conscience.”