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The Sunday Special

Wal-Mart Strikes Again

by DAVID MACRAY

“Anything that can be digitalized can be outsourced.”

?John Sweeney, former president, AFL-CIO

It didn’t get much media attention, but on December 8, Wal-Mart announced that beginning January 1, 2011, it would discontinue its $1 dollar per hour bonus pay for Sunday work.  Maybe the media figured there had already been enough recession-angle stories, and that compared to lay-offs, home foreclosures, and double-digit unemployment, the loss of a buck an hour wasn’t worth reporting.

But considered from a different angle, Wal-Mart’s announcement is quite sobering. Overturning the long-standing policy of paying people premium-time (even as little as $1 per hour more) for Sunday work  is definitely a step backwards.  After all, premium pay for Sunday work has been an American institution of sorts for more than 100 years.

Sunday was always special.  It was the Sabbath, the day people attended church, the traditional day of rest in America (even many 19th century laborers, wretched as they were, worked only half a day on Sundays).  For that reason, Sunday was chosen as the day on which certain holidays?Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter?were observed. 

Sunday was also recognized as America’s unofficial family day, a day when the kids were out of school, a day when relatives got together; and, until well after World War II, it was a day on which most retail businesses in America were shuttered.  Thus to work on a Sunday was to serve above and beyond the call of duty, hence the premium pay.

So why is the most successful merchandiser in the history of the world (and the largest private employer in the United States, Canada and Mexico) squeezing its future full-time workers out of $8 pay on Sundays?  Surely, it’s not a question of being unable to afford it, because Wal-Mart is rolling in dough.  Actually, the answer is fairly obvious:  They did it because they could. 

With no labor union or government agency to stop them, with the country too distracted by its own economic worries and woes to empathize with retail clerks, and with the job market in the sorry shape it’s in, what are these Wal-Mart folks supposed to do?quit their jobs and look for work elsewhere?  Taking all of this into account, Wal-Mart saw the move as eminently doable?.and did it.

What makes this phenomenon?i.e., management’s boot placed firmly on labor’s neck?so spooky is that no one knows where it will ultimately lead.  Many fear that the continued attack on the American worker will result in the dissolution of the middle-class and turn the U.S. into a glorified Third World nation, where we have a tiny upper class and a huge, sprawling lower class.  It’s not as farfetched as it sounds.

Consider:  Besides sending jobs overseas and replacing people with automated services and robots, corporations are laying off blue and white collar workers, shifting to part-time employees, eliminating pensions, rolling back holiday, vacation and sick pay, raising premiums on health care, and forcing employees to sign loyalty oaths.  Workers are treated like disposable commodities.  Had labor relations experts predicted such a thing in 1957, they would’ve been laughed out of the profession.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argues that the 30-year erosion of the middle-class and the onset of the Great Recession are inextricably connected.  Because the success of the economy is dependent on the health (“buying power”) of the middle-class, when the middle can’t afford to purchase goods and services, the economy tanks.  Simple as that.  Therefore, maintaining a healthy middle isn’t a form of generosity; it’s a form of self-preservation.

The rich can’t do it by themselves.  In 1970, the top 1-percent earned 9-percent of all income.  By the time the 2008 recession rolled around, the top 1-percent were earning nearly 24-percent.  But even though Wall Street is flourishing and the rich are getting richer, they can’t be relied upon to fuel the economy.  According to Reich, the very rich simply don’t spend enough money.  That’s where the American middle comes in. 

Historically, the middle-class has been extraordinarily dependable shoppers.  They buy everything.  The middle-class buys huge amounts of regular, everyday goods and services, and because these everyday goods and services are what keep the economy lubricated, society prospers.  Buying a yacht doesn’t help that much.  Also, the rich tend to invest much of their money, which, while sweetening their bank accounts and propping up the stock market, does little to sustain the “real” economy.

Assaulting American labor is analogous to chopping down an apple orchard.  Although cutting down the trees makes picking the apples infinitely easier (and, if you’re a fruit vendor, more profitable), it also deprives the orchard of a future.  But, come to think of it, no one ever accused Wall Street of caring that much about the future.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net