When the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1,100 garment workers, the seemingly vast separation between Bangladesh and the American heartland, between the then and now of industrial labor, shrank to the width of a pair of skinny jeans. The human costs of “cheap” clothing suddenly, violently came into view. A subsequent investigation by Al Jazeera America revealed that retail giant Walmart had not only relied on Rana Plaza labor but, through subcontracted suppliers, also engaged the nimble hands of 12-year-old workers.
Calls for accountability overseas amplified the demands for better wages and benefits for Walmart employees at home. The OUR Walmart campaign — started in 2011, funded by a labor union, carried out by community groups and targeting warehouses and retail stores — has focused on thegaping divide between Walmart’s haves and have-nots. While the company netted some $444 billion in sales in 2012, its low-paid retail workers rely more and more on public assistance. And this is not an isolated story. Since 1979, the top 1 percent has seen its incomes nearly triple; earnings of the bottom fifth gained just 18 percentage points.