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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

Grocery Store Workers Caught Up in Wal-Mart's Race to the Bottom

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives speaks at a protest of Wal-Mart's unfair labor practices, which greatly impact women and low-income workers. Wal-Mart's practice of paying low wages and offering meager benefits are spreading to competing employers.
NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives speaks at a protest of Wal-Mart's unfair labor practices, which greatly impact women and low-income workers. Wal-Mart's practice of paying low wages and offering meager benefits are spreading to competing employers.
Grocery store workers in Southern California are fighting to save affordable health care for themselves and their families—70,000 of these workers have been either on strike or locked-out by their employers.

Why is this a feminist issue? Because 65 percent of these grocery workers are women and 35 percent are people of color, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

Many of them are single parents. And they are at the vanguard of a movement to preserve employer health care coverage and stop the steady stream of employers who are effectively reducing employee pay by beginning to deduct the skyrocketing cost of health benefits from workers' paychecks.

On Oct. 31, NOW President Kim Gandy stood with leaders from labor unions, women's groups and civil rights organizations to support the employees: "Women are the majority of grocery workers and the majority of grocery shoppers," said Gandy. "One must stand up for the other."

The other reason NOW members and all feminists should care about this strike is that Wal-Mart, named a Merchant of Shame by NOW last year, is leading the race to the bottom. Wal-Mart has already been chargedóin what could become the largest lawsuit of its kindówith discrimination against women workers in pay, promotions and training.

More importantly, Wal-Mart, which pays extremely low wages and provides almost no affordable health coverage for its workers, is now the largest grocery retailer in the U.S. Major grocery chains argue that they must eliminate health benefits for their own employees in order to be able to compete against Wal-Mart. Competitors may reduce or cancel health benefits first, but cuts in wages are sure to follow in order to meet Wal-Mart's low standards.

As part of NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign, chapter activists across the country have been handing out information to customers in front of Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart has yet to respond to NOW's call for the company to start treating women fairly and to pay all of its employees a living wage—but they did send us a "cease and desist" letter threatening legal action.

Wal-Mart has come to dominate numerous consumer markets, including the grocery business, thanks to its low prices. Those low prices would not be possible without the equally low wages Wal-Mart pays its non-union workers and its lack of affordable health insurance.

"Health care is a family value," said Gandy. "It is a human right. These aren't numbers we're talking about, they're people—they're people with families to support."

Wal-Mart's average national wage is less than $10 an hour, putting many of its employees below the poverty line. Recently, California Assemblywoman Sally J. Lieber, D-San Jose, revealed that Wal-Mart is fully aware that its employees qualify for welfare, so much so that the store has provided information for its employees on how to apply for public assistance.

Every time Wal-Mart opens a new store, the businesses in those areas try to compete with the cut-rate behemoth. That's what's happening now in Southern California, where Wal-Mart plans to begin opening 40 new Supercenters, which sell a large line of groceries.

Anticipating that they would have to drop their prices, three leading grocery chains—Vons (Safeway), Ralphs (Kroger) and Albertsons—announced to the UFCW that their new contract would include a freeze on wages for existing workers, lower wages for new employees and severe cutbacks on health coverage funding. Striking workers from those stores spoke at the Oct. 31 press conference, explaining how expensive decent health coverage would become if the three grocery chains get their way.

"Wal-Mart is creating a despicable business model for the rest of this country," said Olga Vives, NOW's Action Vice President and leader of the Women-Friendly Workplace campaign. "This model says it is okay to mistreat your workers, to discriminate against women, as long as you increase your bottom line and keep your shareholders happy."

Gandy adds: "After the grocery workers in Southern California, who is next? It could be any of us who depend on our employer to provide affordable health insurance."

Wal-Mart's problems have continued to escalate since an Arkansas court permitted a class action employment discrimination claim to go forward. Also, according to the New York Times, a federal grand jury will be investigating accusations that Wal-Mart violated immigration laws in using undocumented workers to clean its stores.

NOW urges its supporters across the country to stand in solidarity with the striking grocery workers. Also, contact your local NOW chapter to find out if they have "adopted" a local Wal-Mart store yet and help them spread the word about the company's unfair labor practices. To find a local chapter visit NOW's chapters page or call 202-628-8669.

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