The Wal-Mart workers who demonstrated across the country yesterday, building on momentum from last week’s fast-food strikes, may be making symbolic progress. But experts say their biggest roadblock to getting higher wages and better benefits lies in Friday’s jobs report.
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The U.S. economy added 169,000 jobs in August, fewer than expected, while the unemployment rate fell to 7.3%. With jobs scarce, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) knows that while it may take a metaphorical black eye in the media, plenty of workers would gladly take the place of those demonstrating and walking out, says Georgetown professor of public policy Harry Holzer.
“The company probably doesn’t like bad press, and they may be tempted to raise wages a bit,” Holzer says. “But their economic model has served them well, and they don’t really deviate from it. They also know how easy it is to replace workers.”
The demonstrators, led by union-backed organization OUR Wal-Mart, are pushing for affordable health-care, the right to unionize and for a $15 federal minimum wage. But Holzer also adds that Congress will not be moving to hike the current federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 anytime soon. And if Wal-Mart’s recent actions in Washington, D.C., scrapping plans for six new stores in light of a living wage bill being passed, are any indication, the company isn’t thrilled by government dictating what it should be paying workers.
“They viewed this as a real slap in the face,” Holzer says of the D.C. bill, which still awaits mayoral signature for implementation. “This action is different than the demonstrations, but if a local or state government comes in to push the company to pay more, right on the verge of them opening six new stores, they may pare back that decision, and discourage other localities from doing the same thing.”
The numbers vary, but thousands participated in the strikes, Holzer says. Wal-Mart maintains that only 50 were its actual employees. The retail giant told FOXBusiness that its workers do make $25,000 annually and do receive benefits, and that these protests are “a handful of union-orchestrated media stunts, made of up of primarily union members and activists.” These workers are also taking a gamble in demonstrating, as they are not union-repped, and they can be fired for their actions.
And it’s unlikely they will get the right to unionize, says Pamela Villarreal, National Center for Policy Analysis senior fellow.
“There are plenty of people that will be willing to work for Wal-Mart,” Villarreal says. “If these workers don’t want to work for $10.50 an hour, there are plenty of young, lower-skilled workers willing to step up to the plate. With such a high unemployment rate, it’s difficult for these workers to get what they want.”
Holzer says these workers may be closer to getting what they want come 2015, when a new Congress is in place, despite calls from the White House and more recently, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), for a $10 federal minimum wage.
“Part of what these protestors are getting is publicity for the issue of wage inequality in the U.S., compared to almost every other industrial country in the world,” he says. “With that, the country becomes more aware of the dramatic wage inequality. But, it’s an employers’ market—it is not that hard to find new workers.”