Walmart is having a rough week. Following a week of employee protests at retail stores in more than 20 cities, a group of employees known as “Walmart moms” took the day off today to host a rally at the retailer's Arkansas headquarters ahead of its annual shareholders meeting — as the company’s "Made in USA" campaign is faltering.
The mom's and other employees are protesting against what they call “illegal treatment of workers” by the country's largest private employer, with specific complaints of irregular schedules and unlivable wages.
"How can you save money if you're not making enough money? How can you live better if you're not paid enough?” Cincinnati Walmart employee Cynthia Brown-Elliott told CNN at a protest on Tuesday, referencing the company's slogan of “Save money, live better.”
Protestors are asking for a $13 minimum wage and more full-time positions. A study from liberal think tank Demos found the retailer pays 825,000 employees less than $25,000 annually.This push from Walmart's female workers aligns with the study's findings that women working in retail make an average of $4 an hour less than their male counterparts.
Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesperson, told VICE News the company's wages were competitive with other retailers, at an average of $12.83 an hour for associates.
“I would put our wages up against any retailer in the industry, unionized or not,” he said.
Lundberg says the 100 or so associates he's seen demonstrating at the meeting represent a small portion of the company's 1.3 million employees, and adds that the movement is a push from union groups to get attention.
“We've got more than 5,000 associates in Bentonville this week who are fired up and ready to have a good time,” Lundberg said. “They're proud of their jobs and that's a much more accurate representation than union organizations busing people in from all over the country.”
With employees on both sides of the picket line showing their spirit in Bentonville this week, Walmart has been getting additional publicity for its “Made in USA” campaign.
In January of 2013 the retailer announced plans over the next ten years to purchase an additional $250 billion worth of goods that are made in the US. However, with a rusty labor market and lack of domestic parts suppliers, many manufacturers are having a hard time meeting the new demand.
“We're not really seeing them as problems, we expected this, and that's why it was a ten year commitment,” Walmart spokesperson Katie Cody told VICE News.
Rita Gunther McGrath, a management professor at the Columbia Business School, told VICE News that a manufacturing labor gap has occurred because as jobs moved overseas in recent decades, a skilled domestic workforce shrunk.
“Because so many of those jobs went away, a lot of people who would have spent the last 15 to 20 years building skills and moving up obviously didn’t. You have a cohort that’s been sliced out of the middle,” she said.
As an example McGrath sites the textile industry, which in the last few decades picked up and completely moved to Asia. Reshoring in these sectors means a company has to completely “rebuild from scratch.”
Dan Ikenson, director at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, told VICE News the sectors collecting dust domestically include apparel, plastic, and sporting goods. Another problematic area is with products with a lot of different parts, such as an iPhone or iPad.
“The more sophisticated the product, the more broken up the supply chain is,” Ikenson said.
Scattered supply chains create a problem for manufacturers trying to source goods from the same country. One part of an iPad may be made in the US, while another is made in China, and yet another in South Korea.
According to Ikenson, fewer local parts suppliers means more expensive production costs, making the “Made in USA” initiative “unrealistic” economically.
In response to this sort of criticism, Cody says Walmart is focused on reshoring goods where domestic production makes economic sense, and actually lowers prices.
Pink lawn flamingos, for example, have gone down in price since production has moved back home. Another item the store has focused on because of costly overseas shipping is ride on toys, like Big Wheels.
Beyond potential price reductions, Cody says the company's is pursuing this initiative to create jobs in the US and meet growing demands by its customers for “Made in USA” products.
Ikenson, however, sees the campaign as merely a way for Walmart to improve its public reputation and winning political favor from the White House.
“There’s a whole political element to this whole reshoring thing. Walmart has a public relations problem,” he said. “This $250 billion campaign is in pursuit of repairing its image.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @rublekb
Photo via Walmart