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American workers need Congress to stand up to Amazon and Walmart

February 28, 2019
Ro's Op-Eds
Ro Khanna and Marc Perrone

The Hill

Amazon has recently been in the spotlight for their opposition to letting their workers join a union. But we also need to recognize the larger impact of companies like Amazon and Walmart – two of our country’s biggest corporations – on America’s 16 million retail workers who help to power our economy every day. About one in ten Americans are employed in the $2.6 trillion retail industry, including 3.5 million cashiers. We must not forget these workers and the challenges they face as the retail industry and our economy continue to evolve, particularly as large online retailers continue to displace traditional brick-and-mortar and small business employees. 

Today’s retail workers are the heart of our economy, but wage stagnation is making it harder for them and their families to get ahead. In the last 40 years, worker productivity has skyrocketed 77 percent while wages have only increased 12.4 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Simply put, corporations have been raking in record profits thanks to the hard work of millions of Americans while refusing to pay them the living wage they have earned and deserve. And as wages have remained flat, the cost of essentials like health care and housing have increased. Working families deserve better.

In fact, today’s average hourly wage has the same purchasing power as it did in 1978 according to data from the Pew Research Center. And while wages have remained flat, the cost of essentials like health care and housing have increased. The result is that too many Americans must work longer hours just to make ends meet.

Many of the 1.3 million members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union work in retail and help power our economy every day. They are on the front lines of the economy, and the challenges they face to provide for themselves and their families are the same challenges too many other working families face. They are demanding that our nation’s leaders step up to hold these companies accountable and ensure that everyone in this country who works hard has the opportunity and support they need to succeed.

We have heard their call. A new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives holds the promise of raising working families above the interests of large corporations and shareholders. We are hopeful that action will be taken by this Congress toward building a stronger and functioning economy in which people who work hard can earn a living, support a family, and build a better life. And one job should be enough to achieve that.

To strengthen retail jobs, we must challenge two of the largest retailers – Walmart and Amazon.

They set the standard for American jobs and our job is to hold them accountable, starting with legislation like the Stop WALMART Act. This bill forces large employers like Walmart to make conditions for workers more livable before they use profits to purchase stock buybacks for shareholders. The bill includes basic criteria like a $15 an hour starting wage for all employees, paid sick leave, and limiting CEO compensation. 

When large employers like Walmart and Amazon do not pay their employees enough to feed their families, it is the taxpayer-funded safety net that steps in. Congress must stop this abuse of the system. Introduced last year, the Stop Bad Employers Zeroing Out Subsidies (BEZOS) Act, compelled Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise the minimum wage for the company’s U.S. workers to $15 an hour. The bill requires large corporations to pay for any public benefits their employees claimed in order to sustain their families. Amazon would have been faced with a simple choice – either pay your employees a living wage or pay for the public benefits that their employees were forced to use to make ends meet. As a result of the bill, Mr. Bezos chose to increase wages, giving 250,000 full-time employees and 100,000 seasonal Amazon workers a raise.

The 16 million workers of America’s retail sector are vital to our country’s economy. Waiting for giant corporations like Walmart and Amazon to step up on their own isn’t working. Americans are working hard with little to no benefits, minimal flexibility, and not enough pay to provide for their families. Jobs in this country can and must be better.  

The future of work will largely depend on the future of retail. We are strongest as a country when we invest in building a strong middle class and ensure anyone who works hard can build a better life for themselves and their family. It will be a defining debate of the next decade and likely the next presidential election as well.

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