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Black Friday walkout: why Wal-Mart is focus of labor's struggle

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“Many of the municipalities where Wal-Mart has thrived were happy to give the company big open spaces of under-used land, where there was no development,” he says, adding that employees in hard-hit regions have been grateful for the jobs.

But now that the company is expanding into major urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, “they are experiencing a kind of worker pushback that they have largely been able to avoid,” adds Testa.

Wal-Mart is not unionized. But for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, dozens of workers in southern California stores went out on strike on Oct. 4. They were not calling for unions, but for better working conditions and the elimination of retaliatory practices by management. In the past six weeks, the work stoppages have spread around the country.

Wal-Mart is the most robust example of a trend that has been growing for years, says Chris Rhomberg, assistant sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

Increasingly, employers are refusing to negotiate with unionized workers, he says. “Low wage labor has spread throughout the economy, and income inequality has grown dramatically in the US,” he says via e-mail.

The real issue, he suggests, is what model of economic growth we should have in America.

“Should we support the low-wage, low-road model practiced by Wal-Mart, or can we promote higher wages and purchasing power to help drive our economy?” asks Professor Rhomberg, adding that the Wal-Mart strikers “have helped put that question on the public agenda.”

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