By Dick Meister

IF YOU WORK FOR a living, watch out. A race to take you to the economic
bottom is well underway. You, too, could end up like workers at Wal-Mart,
the countryıs largest private employer. You, too, could end up barely making
a living. You, too, could be thrust out of the shrinking middle class.

Think Iım exaggerating? Consider the recently concluded strike and lockout
involving 70,000 supermarket workers in Southern California.

Their working conditions had been cited widely as models by those seeking
fair treatment for workers in the service trades that have supplanted
manufacturing as the countryıs major source of employment. They were solid
members of the middle class, thanks to decent, albeit modest, rates of pay
that reached about $20 an hour and decent fringe benefits, notably including
health insurance that was financed entirely by their multi-billion-dollar

But no more. The workers, in desperate financial straits after 4 1/2 months
on the picket lines, their union near bankruptcy, had little choice but to
agree to a contract that goes a long way toward allowing their employers to
treat them the same as Wal-Mart, the employersı role model, treats its
blatantly exploited workers.

The three-year contract provides no wage increases, requires employees to
eventually pay part of their health insurance premiums and cuts their
pension benefits. Worst of all, it creates a two-tier system under which
newly hired workers will get substantially less in pay and benefits than
current employees. Because of the heavy turnover among supermarket employees
and the incentive the system gives the markets to replace senior workers,
they are certain to end up with a significant number of marginally
compensated employees.

Supermarkets also are likely to end up dealing with a much weaker union. The
two-tier system strikes at the basic union principles of solidarity and
equal pay for equal work by dividing workers into two groups, those in one
group paid less than the others, although they do the same work.

The Southern California employersı victory is sure to inspire employers
nationwide to seek similar union concessions, beginning in Northern
California, where supermarket contracts are soon to expire. Major contracts
covering auto workers, teamsters, and hotel and hospital workers expiring
within the next year or two also will be affected.

Although organized labor waged a major campaign in support of the Southern
California workers, it obviously was not nearly enough. Whatıs critically
needed is a massive campaign by the entire labor movement to bring the
benefits of unionization to the highly exploited 1.1 million employees of
Wal-Mart, lest the countryıs other employers join Southern Californiaıs
supermarkets in emulating Wal-Mart.

Rightly or wrongly, many of the other employers claim that competitive
pressures caused by non-union Wal-Martıs position as the countryıs largest
private employer and largest retailer force them to follow its lead.

They are being led to the bottom. Wal-Mart keeps the workers at its 3,500
stores in a state of virtual poverty. It pays them less than $9 an hour for
their average work weeks of 32 hours ­ less than $15,000 a year -- and does
not even offer retirement benefits. It does offer health insurance, but to
get it employees must pay nearly half the cost. Only about 40 percent can
afford to do so and instead must rely on public health services, as do many
Wal-Mart retirees. A like number of employees qualify for government food
stamp programs and other public assistance.

Which means that taxpayers are subsidizing Wal-Martıs ever-increasing
profits by providing aid that wouldnıt be needed if the corporation provided
decent compensation. Yes, customers pay less for many items at Wal-Mart. But
those lower prices are possible only because of the low pay and benefits of
the storesı workers and Wal-Martıs heavy reliance on goods supplied cheaply
by manufacturers in developing countries where workers are treated even

³In a world of Wal-Marts,² notes AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, ³the
American middle class would disappear.²

Providing Wal-Mart employees the badly needed protection of unionization
undoubtedly would trigger a resurgence of union organizing nationwide. But
it wonıt be easy. As government investigators, union organizers and many
current and former employees have reported, Wal-Mart routinely disciplines
those who dare seek union representation.  Firings, demotions, reductions in
pay and working hours and other illegal actions against union supporters are

Labor rarely has faced a more urgent challenge. Its future may very well
depend on the outcome.

Copyright İ 2004 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and

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