Walmart’s decision on Feb. 19 to raise its base wage to $9 an hour, $1.75 higher than the federal minimum, has been heralded as a major victory for American labor. Wall Street punished the world’s largest retailer for the pay hike–which will cost the firm $1 billion this fiscal year–by driving down its shares. But labor economists and liberals lauded the raise as a new wave of “Fordism,” referring to Henry Ford’s historic 1914 decision to double wages in his factories, which not only boosted productivity and reduced turnover but also created more customers for his company’s products.
Walmart’s move is seen by some as a sea change for the retail sector. “Walmart sets the standard, and the fact that they’ve kept wages so low has made it hard for others to raise them,” explains Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Now it’s likely that pay for other low-income workers will rise, not just in retail but also in other sectors like home health care, child care and fast food, all of which compete for the same workers as Walmart.
The question is, how much will it matter? Labor’s share of the economic pie has been decreasing since the 1970s, thanks to globalization, which has outsourced low-wage jobs (and technology, which has destroyed them outright); the shrinking of unions; and pressure from Wall Street to reduce costs, which turbocharged all these trends. The corporate share, meanwhile, is at record highs. That means Walmart’s move to $9 an hour won’t make much difference in macroeconomic terms. The $1 billion it will effectively put in the hands of 40% of its 1.3 million U.S. employees is a tiny fraction of our $16 trillion economy. Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, estimates that even if all low-wage employers followed Walmart’s lead, it wouldn’t move the needle on labor’s share by even a single percentage point. “That’s not to say that the Walmart workers’ victory isn’t an important step forward for low-wage workers,” he says. “But it also shows what a small piece of the pie they’ve been getting.”
Indeed, the Walmart workers who have spent much of the past year in parking lots with bullhorns were asking for $15 an hour and better schedules. “When I started, I saw how many of us were working for one of the richest companies in the world and yet we had to be on public assistance,” says Kelly Sallee, 22, who has worked for Walmart for eight months and took part in wage protests in Dayton, Ohio. Despite the pay increase, employees like Sallee, who says she’d like to work full time but can’t get enough hours, are still struggling for improvements in scheduling, an important labor-rights issue. Retailers across the country use software to optimize scheduling around store traffic. This often means less notice given for when workers must report to their jobs and erratic cuts in some of their hours, which labor activists believe may also be intended to decrease the number of workers on full-time benefits. Walmart denies this and says it would prefer more full-time workers to multiple part-timers. The company also says that the $9 it will pay is better than the $7 and change paid by many other retailers, even some unionized ones, and that it gives more notice of shift changes than many others. It says that workers can ask for more hours via Walmart’s intranet system and that 1 million hours a week regularly go unclaimed.
But the fact that Walmart workers, who aren’t unionized in the U.S., got anything at all shows the PR pressure that companies like it are coming under as economic inequality gains clout as a political issue. Twenty-nine states have raised the minimum wage, and presidential candidates from both parties are expected to wrestle with the challenge for the next 18 months. Whether or not Walmart’s top brass, a conservative bunch, has experienced an ideological shift is not the point. That it is concerned about turnover costs as a better economy gives laborers more options for where to work is most significant.
An extra couple bucks an hour will certainly help low-wage workers, and they’ll be more likely to spend it than the rich, meaning it will drive more economic growth. It will not be a net job destroyer, as some believe. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that while a $9 minimum wage could put from zero to 500,000 low-end jobs at risk as companies try to limit staffing, it would also lift 1 million people out of poverty and increase earnings for 16.5 million workers. As Sawhill puts it, “That’s not quite a free lunch, but it’s pretty cheap.” That’s a reason for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. But even if it doesn’t, Walmart workers have proved they can move the most powerful retailer in the world to change. That means they, and others, can do it again. And that, more than anything else, may be the real victory.
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.