As retail workers step up demands for higher wages and more stable working hours, a trade organization has warned that many retailers cannot afford to pay more, intensifying a debate over fair pay in a struggling industry.
Labor activists have long denounced retailers like Walmart for employing an army of low-wage, part-time workers to staff their stores. As retail sales flounder in an uncertain economy, those activists — and even a growing number of retailers — are linking those sluggish sales to the retailers’ own low wages.
On Thursday, organizers of a group called Our Walmart took to the streets in New York, Washington and Phoenix to draw attention to their campaign to change labor practices in retailing and other low-wage industries like fast-food restaurants. By not paying their workers a living wage, the activists say, such businesses squeeze the very people they hope to sell to.
“I can’t afford anything,” said LaRanda Jackson, 20, who earns $8.75 an hour working on the sales floor at a Walmart in Cincinnati. “Sometimes I can’t afford soap, toothpaste, tissue. Sometimes I have to go without washing my clothes.”
Ms. Jackson was among 14 Walmart employees and 12 others who were arrested and charged with civil disobedience Thursday after staging a protest outside the Manhattan residence of Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, demanding that Walmart set a base pay of $15 for all its workers — much like the demands of the fast-growing movement of fast-food workers.
But the National Retail Federation, a retail industry group, has resisted demands for a higher minimum wage. Given the tough winds facing the industry, the group said this week, raising the minimum wage would simply eat away at many retailers’ bottom lines, and ultimately threaten retail jobs.
Editorial: Raising the Minimum Wage, City by CityOCT. 11, 2014
In a report, the group said that retailers in fact offered jobs to millions of younger, inexperienced workers, as well as workers like teenagers and college students looking for scheduling flexibility, which was behind the concentration of low-wage jobs in the industry.
The federation argued that retail workers earn above-average pay if temporary workers, including those hired for holiday sales, are excluded. Retail workers ages 25 to 54 who work full time for at least three consecutive months make an average of $38,376 a year, slightly more than full-time workers in nonretail jobs, the group said.
“Now is not the right time to be mandating a minimum-wage increase,” the federation’s president, Matthew R. Shay, said in a briefing Thursday. “We’d rather much be focusing on what do we need to be doing to stimulate growth.”
Walmart also stressed that many of its workers were quickly prompted to better-paying jobs. “At Walmart, it doesn’t take too long to advance beyond the minimum wage level,” said Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for Walmart.
He said that Walmart had promoted 170,000 people last year to jobs with higher pay. “It’s obviously a very important debate, but starting wage isn’t the main issue,” he said. “The main issue is the opportunity you have to grow and advance and take home higher pay.”
And speaking to reporters after a conference call Wednesday, Douglas McMillon, Walmart’s chief executive, stressed that less than 6,000 workers of its American work force of 1.3 million currently made the minimum wage, and that the retailer intended to eventually move them off that wage level.
Still, Ms. Jackson, 20, who has worked at Walmart for 15 months and supports her mother and four brothers on her salary, said that low hourly wages weren’t the only problem. She was sometimes assigned as little as 25 hours a week, greatly reducing her take-home pay, she said.
With Thursday’s protests, the Walmart protesters borrowed several publicity-winning ideas from the fast-food movement: engaging in civil disobedience and holding protests in media centers, like New York and Washington. The Walmart protests also adopted the fast-food workers’ call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. That demand helped push Seattle to enact a $15 minimum wage while San Francisco is considering one.
Labor strategists had voiced frustration in recent months that the campaign to raise wages at Walmart was getting far less attention and traction than the movement of fast-food workers.
The Walmart demonstrators have sought to turn up the pressure by personalizing their campaign — holding protests outside the Arizona home of Rob Walton, Walmart’s chairman, and the Park Avenue apartment of Ms. Walton, his sister. Both are large Walmart shareholders and children of Sam Walton, the company’s founder. The demonstrators also protested at an office of the Walton Family Foundation in Washington.
A number of retailers are now rethinking what they pay their workers. Ikea, the home furnishings giant, said in June that it would raise the minimum wage at all its United States stores starting next year, with average base pay for an Ikea employee rising to $10.76 an hour.
Gap also raised minimum hourly pay for workers across all of its brands to $9 in June, and said that workers will receive at least $10 an hour in June 2015. The company said in a statement at the time that the move would have a “positive impact” on its employees and was “good for business.”
Over all, a growing number of retailers cited stagnating incomes and weak spending as a threat to profits, the Center for American Progress said in a report last week.
“It’s simple. When Americans don’t have disposable income, retailers don’t have customers,” Brendan V. Duke, a policy analyst at the center, said last week. “It’s time for retailers and the rest of corporate America to connect the dots and realize the only way our economy can sustain consumer demand is by giving their workers a raise.”
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