By most accounts, yesterday’s worker actions at Walmart have were a rousing success. Organizers say there were strikes at 1,000 stores in 46 states; hundreds of workers walked off the job, and they were joined by hundreds of other activists and community supporters. Based on reports by The Nation’s Josh Eidelson, the Walmart actions sound like they were a lot of fun: at rallies, there were light shows, mic checks, and subversive Christmas carols (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”, “Deck the aisles with living wages”).

Organizers say that yesterday’s Walmart strikes, combined with earlier, immigrant-led actions against abusive practices at Walmart suppliers, are part of a strategy of gradual escalation that will be the “new permanent reality” for Walmart: keeping the pressure on, and throwing a harsh national spotlight on the retailer’s bottom-feeding, exploitative labor practices.

Why do these actions matter? First of all, there’s the brute fact of Walmart’s enormous size and power. Walmart is the third largest public corporation in the world, and also the world’s largest private employer, and largest retailer. And as historians like Bethany Moreton have pointed out, when it comes to its employees, Walmart, with its roots in the culture of the agrarian South, has always taken an anti-modern, deeply feudalistic and patriarchal approach. Its economic model is based on low-wage labor, and it has been notable as one of the most vehemently anti-union employers in American history. Since Walmart is such a behemoth, and since its ideology is so passionately anti-labor, it has been one of the driving forces in our economy that has been disempowering and immiserating American workers and accelerating economic inequality. Here, for example, are a few shocking stats, from internal Walmart documents that were recently released: low-level workers at Walmart generally start at only $8 per hour, and, even if their evaluations are flawless, are eligible for a yearly raise that is, at maximum, 60 cents per hour. Most workers get only 20 to 40 cents, and the average worker, after working there for six years, would only be making $10.60 an hour.

I like to explain it this way: Walter Reuther’s 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” between automakers and the UAW set a benchmark for post-war employers that ushered in an era of rising prosperity for workers, lower economic inequality, and a growing middle class. By contrast, Walmart, with its ideology of anti-union feudalism and its commitment to low-wage wage labor, has set a benchmark for today’s employers that has encouraged them to underpay their low- and middle-level employees and lavishly overcompensate those at the top, which has led to anemic economic growth, skyrocketing economic inequality, increasing downward mobility, and an increasingly struggling middle class.

Walmart, clearly, is the labor movement’s great white whale, and to the extent labor can make headway and improve working conditions there, it bodes well for its potential to change things for the better for the rest of American workers. I am, therefore, strongly encouraged, that the United Food and Commercial Workers, which helped organize the protests, seems now to finally be taking a bolder approach, where Walmart is concerned. In the past, I’m afraid, the UFCW and other unions have been too timid in their dealings with Walmart; acquaintances of mine in the labor movement feel the same way. One thing that Occupy showed was that old-fashioned protests and street theater can have an impact. Okay, Occupy didn’t usher in a brave new egalitarian utopia, but it gain media attention and put certain ideas about economic inequality into the national conversation, that hadn’t been there before. I think Occupy is one of many reasons why Democrats were so successful on November 6.

That the UFCW is staging these protests, and seems committed to a strategy of escalation, is encouraging. The one thing about these protests that is not so encouraging is that, thus far, they have received barely any support from elected officials at the national level. Apparently, the only members of Congress who showed up to support the protests were Reps. Alan Grayson of Florida and George Miller of California. Recently, my colleague Ed Kilgore wrote an insightful post about “the coming struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.” The main dividing line in that struggle will be about economics, and the role of labor unions, and in particular of the struggles of low-wage workers at places like Walmart, will be one of the biggest fault lines. It’s worth noting that when her husband was governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton, who if she wants it is likely to be the next Democratic standard-bearer, was on the board of directors of Walmart. Of course, that was a very long time ago. Nevertheless, it’s all the more reason why building a powerful movement to challenge to Walmart’s employment practices is so important. The stronger such a movement is, the more likely it is that Democratic leaders will start supporting its objectives. And in the long run, that will lead to more social justice for us all.

(Note: this post has been updated to reflect that Walmart is no longer spelled with a hyphen between the l and the m. D’oh!)

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee