The nation’s largest retail employer, Walmart, recently announced a policy to increase its base wage to $9.00 an hour this year, 20 percent above Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50. Walmart went one step further and noted that it intends to increase its base pay to at least $10.00 an hour in 2016. This wage increase affects 500,000 of its workers across the country.
TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and other companies owned by TJX followed suit by saying they would also bump their lowest wage up to $9 an hour in June and will offer employees who have been there at least 6 months another bump up to $10 an hour in 2016.
Part of this increase may be attributed to a number of states raising their minimum wages in 2015, thus affecting one-third of Wal-Mart’s stores. However, another reason for the increase lies in the courage of Wal-Mart workers speaking up for fair wages. For the last three years, Walmart workers have been organizing together to fight for their rights. They have organized strikes throughout the year, and especially on Black Friday as a way to draw attention to their cause.
It is important to note that they are particularly brave because Walmart workers are not officially unionized. While they received support and advice from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and while they organized under OUR Walmart, it is not an official union and does not have collective bargaining powers.
These workers are considered at-will employees in most states (including Maine), meaning they could be fired for any reason at any time. However, they do still have some rights under our labor laws. They have the right to organize a union. They have the right to not be threatened for union activities. They have the right to speak up for their rights.
The National Labor Relations Act protects the right for workers (even non-unionized ones) “to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren’t in a union.” The National Labor Relations Board has formally accused Walmart of breaking this law in 14 states after disciplining workers for striking. But this case is still awaiting final judgment.
It is important to note, however, that while the law prevents companies from punishing employees for labor-related events, the company can fire employees who do not have contracts in at-will states for any reason so long as it’s not directly related to those actions. This is what makes the actions of the Walmart workers so courageous. They stepped up to fight a power far greater than they are knowing they didn’t have the protection unions and employment contacts provide.
The actions of the Walmart workers have great implications for workers across our nation. They show that workers who organize and speak up with one voice have a far better chance of success than workers who go it alone. They show the need for unions in our country as the one way workers can achieve positive change without the risk of losing their job while fighting for it.
In the end, Walmart will most likely be remembered for this news as a company finally giving workers some respect. The tides could be turning with minimum wage as these large retailers realize that if they want to attract and retain good workers, they need to pay reasonable wages. The wave of economic growth this minimum wage boost will create could turn out to be huge as workers across the country finally have more money to spend. But if we forget the workers’ piece in this whole story, we will miss a great example of how workers speaking up for their rights is not just good for them; it is good for the company, good for the economy, and good for our country.
About the author: Karen Bilodeau is an attorney and partner at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or at firstname.lastname@example.org