Wal-Mart will be paying about 87,500 current and former employees in Massachusetts a total of $40 million dollars after settling in the state's biggest-ever wage-theft class-action lawsuit. According to the settlement, everyone who has worked at a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts since 1995 will receive a payment ranging from $400 to $2,500, depending on how long they worked there. The average payment will be about $734.
The lawsuit, like many other cases brought against Wal-Mart, alleges that the company requires employees to work through breaks and work beyond regular shifts. In other words, Wal-Mart systematically steals the labor of its workers. It pays workers poverty wages for their scheduled hours, then tells them they have to give some free work or else be fired.
If you think this story sounds strangely familiar, you're right. Last year, Wal-Mart did the same thing. In December 2008, they settled 63 lawsuits for alleged wage theft around the country, paying out at least $352 million. Is it a coincidence that it has happened again in December, a time when the company can portray the payments as Christmas bonuses? Think of it: Wal-Mart gives back some of the money it stole from its workers, without ever admitting that it stole anything in the first place, arranges the settlement so that no one can talk about it, and makes the whole thing look like a benevolent act. "Merry Christmas, suckers!"
This is just a calculated operating cost for Wal-Mart headquarters. They set their wage and hour policies. They know that the worst thing that can happen is a lawsuit which will take years to develop (This one began 8 years ago). They know that the lawsuit can be settled on terms that preserve the company's All-American image and do not affect Wal-Mart's ability to commit the same crimes again. And the company marches on.
And Wal-Mart will continue marching on, trampling its workers underfoot, until those workers are able to organize and resist. If any company in the United States is difficult to unionize, it is Wal-Mart. They pull out all the stops. All managers get training in anti-union tactics. Workers have to watch anti-union propaganda videos. Corporate HQ manages the public relations at any store where labor or community activism breaks out. At worst, they will simply close a store that gets close to unionizing. In 2000, when meat-cutters at a Wal-Mart decided to unionize, Wal-Mart closed down its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores across six states, and switched to prepackaged meat.
Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) to give up. Their Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign has signed up nearly half a million supporters, publicized Wal-Mart's anti-worker policies, and begun organizing drives at hundreds of stores. Some say that UFCW's efforts have already changed Wal-Mart's behavior on some issues, because it's the closest thing to accountability the company has ever had.
Few things would do as much to shift power in this country from the corporate class to the working class as winning a strong union at the nation's biggest private employer. Even if Wal-Mart were victorious, as it always has been, at crushing the organizing drive, a big publicized fight would bring national attention to wage-theft, corporate power, and the labor laws that make it unnecessarily hard for workers to unionize. Winning at Wal-Mart would be huge. Losing at Wal-Mart--and losing right--could be just as huge.