On December 4, a press release from Walmart arrived in my inbox. “Walmart Announces More Than $15.5 million in Quarterly and Special Cash Bonuses for New York Associates” read the bold-faced text.
The email went on to state that Walmart had announced $700 million in cash bonuses to its US-based “associates.” Then details are as follows: part-time workers will receive $150, while full-timers will get $300.
It’s the same bonus that Amazon announced a week earlier. The two companies are the twin behemoths of the US retail economy: combined, they employ almost three million people. It’s no surprise that they’re doling out identical onetime bonuses to their workers.
But what do these numbers mean in the context of Walmart or Amazon’s bottom line?
According to Walmart, after the third quarter of 2020, the company has made $15.6 billion in profits this fiscal year. As noted in a recent report from Public Citizen, this is an increase of $4.9 billion, or 45 percent, over 2019. The pandemic has been a boon to the company: to say business is good is an understatement.
Amazon likewise is having a record year. Its third-quarter profits are triple what they were last year: where in 2019, those profits were $2.1 billion, this year, they’re $6.3 billion.
Amazon briefly gave its warehouse workers a hazard pay bump: they received $2 an hour extra, but that ended in May. Workers have persistently demanded a reinstatement of the pay bump, but Amazon shows no signs of budging. Instead, workers get this onetime bonus, a “thank you” as the holiday season descends upon a workforce that continues to live in fear that they, like some twenty thousand of their coworkers, will get COVID-19.
Amazon has given workers a previous onetime bonus, in June, after the pay bump expired. That bonus amounted to $500 million. As a recent report from Public Citizen notes, this amounts to around 8 percent of the company’s third-quarter profits. If fourth-quarter profits resemble those of the previous quarter, this latest holiday bonus will likewise be around 8 percent of the company’s profits.
Walmart, for its part, never paid its workers an hourly bonus. Instead, it has given them this $150/$300 bonus four times since the pandemic began in March. This amounts to $1.8 billion in payouts for workers. The breakdown is similar to that of Amazon: the bonuses equal about 7 percent of Walmart’s profits for the fiscal year 2020.
Walmart and Amazon have seen record-breaking profits this year, and they’ve given the workers who bore the brunt of the risk and the labor required to produce such sky-high numbers under 10 percent of the loot. The executives at these companies have never had it so good, and their workers are getting a minuscule share of the good fortune, even as they continue to drop dead from COVID-19.
As a Brookings Institute report — published after the third quarter of the fiscal year 2020, so it leaves out this latest round of profits and bonuses — notes, Amazon workers have received an extra 95 cents an hour as COVID-19 compensation over the course of the pandemic, while Walmart workers have gotten even less, only 63 cents an hour. This is as the companies’ good luck has added $70 billion to Jeff Bezos’s fortune and $45 billion to that of the Walton family.
“Amazon and Walmart could have quadrupled the hazard pay they gave their frontline workers and still earned more profit than the previous year,” write the authors of the Brookings report.
In a recent press conference, Walmart and Amazon workers demanded an extra $5 per hour until the pandemic subsides. The workers’ rights organization United for Respect calls the campaign “Five to Survive” — in addition to the demand for higher wages, the campaign calls for access to paid and unpaid leave, virus safety measures including transparent notification of positive cases in stores, the inclusion of “workers in decision-making when it comes safety measures and protocol,” and protection from retaliation.
These companies don’t listen to their workers, because they don’t have to. Their executives are swimming in money, and throwing the workers who produce all that wealth scraps — and the scraps would be even smaller were it not for the occasional burst of public outrage about these companies’ workplace abuses. Campaigns like Five to Survive are critical for publicizing what the workers at the heart of these companies need, but until those workers unionize en masse, they won’t win the compensation they deserve, and they’ll continue to bear all the risks of working on the front lines of a pandemic.
From Ford to Walton
There’s a reason Walmart and Amazon aren’t unionized: it’s an enormously difficult task.
Here’s how longtime union strategist and writer Richard Yeselson, in a 2013 essay, put the question of organizing Walmart:
It is said that we have a “Wal-Mart economy” today in the same way we had a “Fordist economy” at midcentury. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million in the United States, about 1 percent of the entire workforce, a bit lower than the ratio that the auto workers represented in the U.S. workforce of 1940. The difference is that Wal-Mart has more than 4,200 stores in America today, and GM and Ford together had perhaps 160 auto plants in 1940. The auto plants of that day averaged perhaps 2,500 workers each. Steel plants were similarly large; Wal-Mart stores average about 300 workers. Given that Wal-Mart’s anti-union animus is as fierce as that of the great carmakers during the Depression, it would be as difficult today to organize a single store of 300 as it was then to organize a giant auto plant. The recent courageous activism of several hundred workers at Wal-Mart stores around the country only underscores the overwhelming challenge of organizing the entire company.
It is much harder for Walmart workers to organize across the company than it was for industrial workers at the height of the union movement (and it was very hard for those workers: it took sit-down strikes and campaigns that killed several of those workers) because they are spread over many more, smaller workplaces.
Amazon, while employing larger numbers of people at its warehouses, is a similar story: the company deploys every anti-union measure in the book, from tracking workers’ organizing activities to illegally retaliating against troublemakers, to paying the infamous Pinkerton agency to infiltrate facilities. That a single Amazon warehouse, located in Bessemer, Alabama, is unionizing is a remarkable development given these facts: the odds these workers are up against are incalculable.
To raise the issue of the obstacles arrayed against worker organization isn’t meant to encourage defeatism or apathy but to ensure clear thinking about how it is that companies like Walmart and Amazon reap fortunes off of a mass casualty event and don’t even give their workers the minimum they need to survive. There has never been a more pressing time to get serious about how to stop the rich from profiting off pain and misery. The inequalities between what the pandemic has meant for higher-ups at Walmart and Amazon and what it has meant for those who work for them is a stark reminder of who holds the power, and who holds nothing but a few extra pennies an hour.