RH Reality Check: Elizabeth Warren Takes on Walmart

RH Reality Check, November 19, 2014

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) invited Walmart workers to brief Congress on Tuesday about the retail giant’s abusive practices, the conversation was about more than just Walmart.

“No one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty,” Warren said.

“This is about the simple dignity of the people you have hired to work,” Miller said. “When you have a higher minimum wage, fair scheduling, and equal work for equal pay, the perception of the business goes up in the people’s mind, the customers go up and the revenues go up.”

Cantare Duvant, a Walmart customer service manager, said at the briefing that since Walmart is the nation’s largest retailer, it sets the standard for others in the industry. “So not only do we as Walmart workers deserve better, our economy also deserves better,” she said.

Duvant is a member of OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), a union-backed group of Walmart workers who are, in Duvant’s words, “struggling to support our families on low pay and erratic scheduling” in what is now “Walmart’s low-wage economy.”

“Walmart specifically is worth discussing not only because of the 1.3 million workers it directly employs, but also because of the impact its employment practices have on the rest of our economy,” said Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at Demos. She said Walmart does this by “pushing down wages, limited workers hours, and squeezing its suppliers and its competitors.” 

A majority of Americans are paid by the hour, and about half of early-career adults have no say in their work schedules, said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. “This isn’t just a narrow section of people,” she said.

Sen. Warren, a progressive hero who was recently appointed to a position in the Senate Democratic leadership, said that the issue of low-wage work in America is “deeply personal” for her.

When her father lost his job after having a heart attack, Warren said, her working-class family couldn’t pay the bills, lost their car, and almost lost their home. Then one day, “My mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home, pulled on her best dress, put on her lipstick, put on her high heels, and walked to Sears to get a minimum-wage job.”

“But here’s the key: It was a minimum-wage job in an America where a minimum-wage job would support a family of three.”

That could never happen today, Warren said, when “a momma and a baby on a full-time minimum-wage job cannot keep themselves out of poverty.”

Warren used the briefing to promote three pieces of legislation aimed at helping low-wage workers, including but not limited to people working at Walmart.

Those bills would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, give workers more reliable and flexible schedules, and help women address unequal pay based on gender.

Equal pay came up because women make up about two-thirds of the low-wage work force, and many are family breadwinners. Warren said that women in about half of American jobs can be fired just for asking whether their pay is unequal to their male coworkers.

The Schedules That Work Act, Warren said, is about the “basic fairness” of workers being able to plan for a second job, child care, or schooling. It would require employers to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance, compensate them for showing up for work only to be sent home, and not retaliate against workers for requesting more flexible or predictable schedules.

All three bills have been blocked by Republicans, which Warren openly acknowledged.

“I know that change is not easy. We might not pass these bills right away,” she said. “But don’t kid yourself about the importance of these bills, and the assurance that we’re eventually going to get them through.”

The Schedules That Work Act in particular would help Fatmata Jabbie, a Walmart worker and refugee from Saudi Arabia whose story was read at the hearing.

“Although I am not full-time yet, I am virtually on call seven days a week to pick up extra hours,” she said in her written statement. Her reward for that trouble is usually only 30 to 36 hours of work and $150 to $200 in take-home pay.

“I am a mom with two beautiful children, so I am not the only one who relies on that salary to survive,” Jabbie said.

OUR Walmart is pushing for bigger reforms than the three bills Warren promoted though. Members of the group are calling for their aggressively non-unionized employer to pay a minimum living wage of $15 an hour, provide stable, full-time schedules, and stop retaliating against workers who speak out against the company’s practices.

Duvant, for instance, already makes the $10.10 per hour that the federal minimum wage bill would guarantee—but that doesn’t do her much good, she said, when Walmart will only schedule her for 16 hours of work per week.

And Evelin Cruz, who worked for Walmart for 11 years, said at the hearing that the company fired her a few weeks ago for her activism with OUR Walmart.

“We spoke out for change, and Walmart did what it does best, which is bully, retaliate, and fire me,” she said.

Cruz told RH Reality Check that even though she no longer works at Walmart and is looking for other work, she’ll keep up the fight with OUR Walmart.

“That’s what they count on, for people to be out of Walmart and no longer want to participate,” she said. “But this is an issue that is not only affecting people in Walmart. It’s a widespread problem of scheduling, lack of hours, and a minimum wage that you can’t survive on.”