Wal-Mart Protests Pit Workers Against Shoppers

The irony of the retailer's low wages is that they help cut costs for ... low-wage workers.

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Most Americans don't mind protests aimed at CEOs or fat-cat shareholders. But what if agitators disrupt bargain-hunters trying to provide a decent holiday for their families?

That's the intriguing prospect that's developing as thousands of Wal-Mart employees promise to protest — and perhaps strike — at 1,000 Wal-Mart stores this holiday season. The aggrieved employees say the giant retailer practices abusive labor policies meant to keep pay low and prevent the company from offering benefits to its workers. So they're planning union-style tactics meant to draw attention to their cause and perhaps shut down Wal-Mart outlets. Wal-Mart, which isn't unionized, says the actions are illegal, and it has asked the government to legally prohibit the protests.

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Whether the workers' claims are valid or not, the whole controversy encapsulates many tensions caused by globalization, which benefits some Americans and punishes others — sometimes helping and harming the same people. Wal-Mart is a pioneer of offshoring, contracting with low-cost providers in China and other developing nations for the vast majority of the goods on its shelves. It's also a model of efficiency, exploiting cutting-edge technology to streamline its supply chain and further lower costs.

The company's relentless focus on keeping costs low has benefited millions of American consumers — especially those with the lowest incomes and the least to spend. Wal-Mart hasn't just pushed prices down in its own stores. As the world's largest retailer, its market heft has forced competitors everywhere to also lower their prices. Inflation rates have generally fallen over the last 30 years, and inflation hasn't exceeded 4 percent on an annual basis since 1991. It's not an exaggeration to say Wal-Mart is partly responsible for that.

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But the flip side of low costs is that American workers — which are part of those low "costs" — face intense pressure on their own wages and benefits. With unemployment high, and employers like Wal-Mart choosing from an oversupply of lower-skilled workers, that pressure is only getting worse.

The irony of the protests planned by Wal-Mart workers is that if they succeed, and manage to disrupt or shut down commerce at dozens of Wal-Mart stores, they'll be harming a lot of consumers just like themselves. The people who battle crowds for deals on Black Friday or other high-volume sale days aren't typically one-percenters or corporate managers. They're people seeking deep savings in order to enjoy a few nice things over the holidays. If the protests work, those shoppers are likely to suffer more than Wal-Mart, which earns about $17 billion a year in profit and can easily afford a few lost sales.

The protesters may be hoping that shoppers show a little solidarity with their cause, and put up with any disruptions that might occur. That could happen sporadically, but it seems more likely that shoppers will get irritated. The protests could even backfire, and turn the public against the Wal-Mart workers.

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Public support for unions and union-style tactics is near historic lows, according to polls conducted by Gallup. A slight majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they support unions, but only 25 percent say they would prefer that unions have more power in the future. It's safe to say that narrow margin would further drop if Americans felt worker protections would force consumers to pay more or wait in longer lines at Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart protesters may have valid complaints, but part of their challenge is that they're no different from millions of others who face the same problems at their own jobs — and need Wal-Mart to help make ends meet. If workers and shoppers end up in some ugly face-offs this holiday season, they might want to keep in mind that they have quite a lot in common.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.