With Black Friday just about a week away, Walmart workers organizing mass walkouts, strikes and protests for higher wages and better conditions also took their grievances to Capitol Hill.
At a Senate briefing Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) promised the workers to keep pushing Congress to pass three key bills: to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, make companies give workers more predictable schedules, and ensure women and men are paid the same rate for the same work.
As someone raised by working class parents, Warren called the issue “deeply personal.” When she was 12 years old, her father lost his job selling carpet when he took time off to recover from a heart attack. “Like a lot of families, we had no money coming in. We lost our car. We were right on the edge of losing our home,” Warren said. “So my mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home, pulled on her best dress, put on her lipstick and walked to the Sears to get a minimum wage job. But here’s the key: it was a minimum wage job that would support a family of three. That minimum wage job saved our family and our home.”
Today, said Warren, even a single full-time worker can’t pay the rent on the current minimum wage. She has noted previously that today’s minimum wage would be $22 an hour if pay had kept pace with increased productivity over the past several decades.
Warren acknowledged that these three bills — some of which have already been repeatedly blocked by Senate Republicans, will be even more difficult to pass once the GOP takes control of the upper chamber in January. “Change is not easy. We may not pass these three bills right away,” she said.
And for workers like Cantare Davunt, a customer service manager at a Walmart in Apple Valley, Minnesota, those measures won’t be nearly enough. At the congressional briefing, Davunt thanked Senator Warren for her efforts, but said she and other workers will keep fighting for $15 an hour, full-time schedules, and the right to protest working conditions without retaliation.
Davunt told ThinkProgress she already makes $10.10 an hour, but her schedule is so erratic that some weeks she’s working overtime and others she’s barely getting 16 hours a week.
“All Christmas season you get tons of hours but in January it really drops off,” she said. “Sure, you don’t have to buy Christmas presents, but you still have to pay rent and food and a huge heat bill. It’s one of the coldest months of the year in Minnesota. So many people rely on public assistance because their employers aren’t paying enough.”
A graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in International Studies, Davunt shares an apartment with a fellow Walmart worker, and says they struggle to make ends meet on their unpredictable salaries. She recently took a second job as a political canvasser, but now that the election is over, she is having difficulty finding another employer willing to work around Walmart’s constantly changing hours.
This summer, Davunt fell behind on bills and had her car repossessed — -without warning, and without the ability to collect her belongings from inside. Like millions of other US workers, she is also behind on her student loan payments. “I can’t get ahead and get my life on track if I’m constantly dealing with how I’m going to pay a certain bill or even get to work,” she said. “We can’t plan ahead. It’s a constant stress.”
A week from this Friday, Davunt will be one of thousands of Walmart workers across the country walking off the job to protest the company’s labor practices on the biggest shopping day of the year: Black Friday. A year ago, Davunt said she was too frightened to be the only one in her store to go on strike. But after participating in protests this summer, learning about her rights, and talking more with her coworkers, she and “quite a few” others in her store will be striking this year together.
Congressman George Miller (D-CA), who is sponsoring Warren’s bills in the House of Representatives, said at Tuesday’s briefing he hopes lawmakers will look at the positive impact of higher wages in places like his home state of California.
“This is about the simple dignity of the people you have hired to work,” he said. “When you have a higher minimum wage, fair scheduling and equal work for equal pay, the perception of the business goes up in the people’s mind, the customers go up and the revenues go up.”