A sign posted near several plastic containers at a Wal-Mart in Ohio said it all:

“Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.”

News of the in-store food donation efforts sent shockwaves across the country, once again shining a light on Wal-Mart’s hypocrisy: How can a company that raked in $15.7 billion in profits last year alone keep its workforce in poverty wages, relying on each other to literally put food on the table?

Wal-Mart’s exploitation of its workers is finally getting the attention it deserves. Massive strikes and demonstrations planned for Black Friday brought attention to the company’s policies. And the National Labor Relations Board recently announced it will prosecute Wal-Mart for violating workers’ rights by threatening, disciplining and firing employees who went on strike or attempted to unionize. As an industry leader, Wal-Mart sets the pace for its competitors. Forcing the company to change its unjust policies will impact workers everywhere.

On Black Friday, while the company’s workers toil long hours for meager wages, under the constant threat of retaliation for demanding something better for themselves and their families, Wal-Mart was lining its pockets once again. And ColorOfChange.org asks you, the reader, to join a chorus of voices demanding that Wal-Mart treat its workers with dignity and respect, and stop exploiting our financial troubles for its own gain.

The economic downturn has forced millions of Americans into low-wage retail jobs like those at Wal-Mart. Today, the company employs nearly 1.4 million workers and is the largest private-sector employer of African Americans in the United States. Wal-Mart’s massive share of the American workforce makes the company’s deplorable treatment of workers all the more infuriating. Low wages, unfair scheduling, wage theft and worker retaliation are all hallmarks of a Wal-Mart associate’s working life with the corporation. Wal-Mart would rather launch food drives for associates to feed each other than simply pay them a living wage.

Though recent strikes in Dallas, Chicago, Miami and Southern California made headlines, Wal-Mart seems used to the outrage surrounding its policies. Confronted about recent protests outside of one of the Los Angeles locations, a spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that “Wal-Mart has seen such protests ‘over and over’ again” — a breathtakingly arrogant response from a company that also boasts the largest number of employees on government assistance.

Wal-Mart has a history of retaliation against workers who stand up and demand better conditions. But intimidation tactics haven’t stopped brave workers like Colby Harris from speaking out. A former Wal-Mart employee and OUR Walmart organizer, Harris is just one of hundreds of Wal-Mart associates who reported retaliatory harassment from the company. Earlier this year, he told The Nation, “They said that anybody who associates themselves with OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart], and the leaders, and the organization as a whole, could face disciplinary actions.”

He has since been fired from Wal-Mart.

Beyond intimidation tactics, Wal-Mart is infamous for wages so low that employees are eligible for taxpayer-funded programs. It’s a lucrative scheme in which employees are perpetually on the brink of financial ruin. All the while, America foots the bill. According to a recent report, one 300-person Wal-Mart store could come at a cost of $900,000 to $1.7 million per year to federal taxpayers through Medicaid, housing assistance, low-income tax credits and deductions, free and reduced lunches for children of employees and low-income energy assistance. Considering the size of Wal-Mart’s U.S. workforce, taxpayers are paying more than $1.5 billion to subsidize its profits.

Clearly, every day is Black Friday for Wal-Mart. The company makes a killing all year, keeping its workers financially insecure and beholden to our social-safety net. Fifty years after Americans came to Washington to march for jobs, thousands of brave workers are taking action, launching Black Friday strikes across the country, demanding dignity, justice and respect. Wal-Mart must be held accountable for its exploitation of American workers and for the dangerous game it plays with our democracy. A social-safety net is important, but it should be there to help people, not subsidize a corporation that lines its pockets by keeping workers in poverty.

By supporting Wal-Mart workers in the fight for good jobs and a decent working environment, we can help raise the standard for the entire retail industry, and show Wal-Mart executives that there’s a price to pay for exploiting its workforce.

Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization. This commentary was first published in The Root.

(4) comments

simon brackley

No-one is "forced" to shop or work at WalMart. If you're not a supporter, shop elsewhere. That's the power of choice. WalMart generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in GRT, has over 100 local employees and supports numerous local non-profits. Amazon, Overstock and other online retailers contribute nothing to the community but are somehow immune from local criticism?
Try Publix for another retail model: http://www.forbes.com/sites/briansolomon/2013/07/24/the-wal-mart-slayer-how-publixs-people-first-culture-is-winning-the-grocer-war/

Paul Kamprath

Do you work at Walmart? If you like them so much then apply for a job there.

Steve Salazar

What happens to the 1.4 million employees if your misguided efforts come true, and WalMart was to close down?

Pierce Knolls

People complain about Wal-Mart a lot, but their parking lot always seems full.

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