As a student at University of Minnesota-Duluth, Cantare Davunt graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. As a Walmart associate, she’s an activist fighting for decent wages, full-time hours, predictable schedules and dignity at work.
Like many college graduates working in the new “Walmart Economy,” Cantare earns $10.10 per hour — about $322 a week. She lives paycheck to paycheck, and has to make near-impossible choices each month between buying enough food, covering her share of rent, or paying off her student loans. In the summer, she forgoes electricity. Other months, it’s her cellphone bill. This August, her car was repossessed. “Minnesota’s a hard place to get ahead without a car,” she said recently.
Cantare told her story at a recent Senate briefing hosted by Senator Warren (D-MA) and Representative Miller (D-CA), where elected officials described the growing crisis of inequality in the U.S. and offered different solutions to turn the tide. As Sen. Warren said: “We need to give workers this chance by raising the minimum wage, providing some basic fairness in scheduling, and fighting for equal pay for equal work.”
Why did the briefing single out Walmart?
Because as one of the richest corporations in the world, with profits of $16 billion annually and 1.4 million employees, it represents a class of corporations that earn record sums while their employees can’t make ends meet. By shear volume and wealth, Walmart sets a standard in our society. The workers who help Walmart make unimaginable profits in turn receive poverty wages, unaffordable health care and irregular schedules, including hours kept at part-time as a way of denying access to paid sick days.
Consumers should not have to subsidize Walmart and the “Walmart Economy” either. But we do — to the tune of nearly $8 billion a year in taxpayer-funded assistance for food, health care, and housing for Walmart employees. The Walton’s — the richest family in the country who own and run Walmart — add $8.6 million to their $150 billion wealth every day. And yet hundreds of millions of Americans subsidize their luxuries while the family robs workers of a decent living.
But there’s good news.
OUR Walmart leaders are standing up for all American families who are struggling to do more with less, and are winning changes at the company. In response to calls for more hours, Walmart created a new scheduling system. After Walmart moms called for the rights of pregnant women to be respected, Walmart improved its pregnancy policy. And after OUR Walmart members called for better pay, Walmart CEO publicly committed to raising pay for the company’s lowest paid workers.
And there’s more good news.
Elected officials at the state and federal level are increasingly introducing legislation that would help Walmart employees, and millions more low-wage workers.
Take the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015 and index it to the cost of living. It would also guarantee a tipped minimum wage — which has been frozen at $2.13 for 20 years — equal to 70 percent of the full minimum wage, helping to fix a glaring disparity between tipped workers and everyone else. As an African American who harbors a persistent saltiness to the idea of free labor, I know we can do better than $2.13.
Or the Schedules That Work Act, which would help give all of us a greater voice on the job. Walmart associates — like many others — are victims to last minute, unpredictable schedules; are punished or terminated when they request more hours; and find it nearly impossible to secure childcare, attend classes to better themselves and find time to organize their lives — all while frequently juggling multiple jobs. This legislation would establish a process for discussing work schedules between employees and employers, and protect workers from retaliation when they request a different schedule.
Lastly, there’s the Paycheck Fairness Act. Like most women, it pains me to talk about continuing pay discrimination across gender and racial lines, something that should have been resolved decades ago. The Paycheck Fairness Act would help close the gaps that exist from the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and if passed, bring an end to pay secrecy and protect workers who discuss their wages on the job.
So here we are. An economy still tepid in recovery, mired in precarious work situations and stagnant wages. Corporations and CEOs who enjoy record-breaking profits. Economists who continue to cite inequality as a hindrance to economic growth. And low-wage workers, emboldened and inspired by recent victories for working families, whose movement for $15 an hour and fair workplaces continues to grow at unprecedented pace.
Next week, Walmart workers will protest at more than 1,600 stores, marking the third consecutive year of Black Friday protests. We know these protests matter. They’ve captured the attention of lawmakers; they’ve gained the support of the American public; and they’ve forced Walmart to raise wages and improve policies, no matter how hard the company refuses to change.
That’s why I’ll be joining Walmart workers this Black Friday. I’ll gather up my turkey-filled friends and relatives and visit my nearest Walmart. I’ll stand outside in solidarity with workers, do some chanting and maybe take some selfies, deliver a memo to the store manager, and contribute to building a fair economy — for us all.
For workers like Cantare, I encourage you to join as well.
By Carol Joyner, Director for the Labor Project for Working Families (LPWF), in partnership with Family Values @ Work.