COLUMN: Today’s labor battles found in retail aisles

This is my Sunday column for the Dec. 2, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Today’s labor battles found in retail aisles
By Aaron J. Brown

Nothing sets the table for an interesting period in history like a failed strike. There was much-ballyhooed strike over Thanksgiving weekend surrounding employees at Wal-Mart. Garnering great attention, the strike was a resounding flop. Wal-Mart posted record sales and few actual employees participated in the labor stoppage.

A lot of people today have a Hollywood notion of labor struggles, believing the virtues of better working conditions and fair pay always triumphant over greedy bosses. Reality, however, is much more complicated. The bosses, sometimes but not always greedy, need the workers. The workers, sometimes but not always mistreated, need the jobs. Both avoid disruptions to this symbiosis.

Wal-Mart absorbs heaps of scorn from labor advocates, but the Arkansas-based retail giant is probably simply the most successful practitioner of labor policies that exist throughout the American retail industry. Workers are paid as little as the local labor market will allow. Few employees are given enough hours to qualify for benefits packages, which aren’t nearly as good as what’s found among the trades, professional firms or government jobs. And, of course, workers have little recourse when their employers summon them from the Thanksgiving dinner table to serve the ravenous consumer demand for holiday shopping.

This debate is not new. Back in 2008, protestors picketed the Wal-Mart here in Hibbing, in the heart of the labor-friendly Mesabi Iron Range. Also devoid of actual Wal-Mart workers, the demonstrations attempted to dissuade people from shopping at Wal-Mart because of labor practices and hiring of non-union firms.

I don’t have to tell you that the Wal-Mart is still doing a brisk business out on Highway 169. At all hours, cars are seen on the customized turn lanes built for the very purpose of getting people into the Wal-Mart parking lot. That botched protest served only mild guilt to some shoppers, and – frankly – disdain to the working people who had to drive past it to collect a needed paycheck.

It might be true that working at Wal-Mart was not a major career goal for many of the people who work there. Nevertheless, people who work there generally need the jobs, often to pay for the ever-increasing cost of college or provide for the ever-increasing expense of raising a family. These jobs are often the most abundant for workers who don’t have a college degree or have a work history that involves lots of moving or family upheaval. In short, the working poor have few options but to work at places like Wal-Mart, and the problems facing the working poor are the crux of America’s challenges.

Imagine this: Here is a class of workers demeaned by many for lacking the skills necessary to hold better-paid, more satisfying positions. The demand for their services is great, however, and there is no doubt that more workers will be needed in the future. These workers comprise a growing majority of the residents of small communities, now greatly exceeding the previous dominant industries.

You’d think I was talking about retail workers and I am. But the same descriptions matches early Iron Range miners as well, a group much maligned and mistreated before 30 years of failed labor struggles came to a breaking point.

The breaking point in retail sector labor struggles certainly did not arrive this Black Friday. Everything is fine, the bosses would say. The employees like their jobs and we like our employees. Unions, it would seem, have no place in this discussion.

Time, and pressure, and fairness, however, always bring a reckoning. This reckoning will come in our time.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

My fellow Sunday columnist and former neighbor Jack Lynch also wrote about labor issues related to the retail economy, though his approach focused more the supply chain. A compelling read.

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