Fight back, live better

Alan Maass reports on the surge of struggles around the U.S. against Wal-Mart, including the outcome of a strike at the company's giant distribution center in Illinois.

Striking Wal-Mart workers picket outside a store in Pico Rivera, Calif. (Aurelio Jose Barrera | OUR Walmart)Striking Wal-Mart workers picket outside a store in Pico Rivera, Calif. (Aurelio Jose Barrera | OUR Walmart)

IN WAREHOUSES and stores around the country, Wal-Mart workers are putting a new spin on the company's famous slogan "Save money, live better." Best of all, they're beginning to see some concrete victories.

In a high-profile battle in Elwood, Ill., southwest of Chicago, workers at the largest warehouse in the Wal-Mart distribution chain returned to their jobs victorious after a three-week strike. The 38 workers won promises that their demands about harassment and management retaliation will be addressed--and they will get full wages for the time they were on strike.

But the walkout in Elwood is only part of a small strike wave. Warehouse workers also walked off the job in Southern California. In early October, "associates" at Wal-Mart stores in Florida and Southern California struck in separate one-day actions.

The walkouts continued on October 9 and 10, with employees going on strike on Tuesday at stores in Florida, Maryland, Texas, Washington and California. According to Salon.com, workers at stores in other cities and states will join the action, which is being spearheaded by OUR Wal-Mart, a group of employees supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The walkouts coincide with the company's annual investor meeting in Bentonville, Ark., where OUR Wal-Mart is planning a demonstration.

That these actions have taken place at all is an inspiring sign of hope for a labor movement that has made little headway against Wal-Mart--the largest private employer in the world, whose guarantee of "low prices" for customers is based on paying low wages and no benefits to overworked employees.

But the fact that workers like those in Elwood are winning concessions from the notoriously anti-union company is even more important. As one of the Elwood strikers, Daniel Meadows, told Labor Notes, Wal-Mart wants "to send a message to you: that you're totally expendable. We want to show that you can stand up to management and keep your job."

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THE ELWOOD strike took place at the company's largest distribution center, a giant 2.2 million-square-foot warehouse.

As at the facility in Southern California, conditions in Elwood are grueling and dangerous. Workers say they lift hundreds of boxes, weighing up to 250 pounds, with no support, in the course of a workday that sometimes expands to 10, 12 or more hours. During the summer, temperatures in the warehouse regularly rise above 100 degrees--during the winter, the facility is freezing.

Injuries, including life-threatening electrical shocks, are commonplace, and workers say they inhale dust and chemical residue. But management responds to health complaints with suspicion. One speaker at a rally for strikers in Elwood told the story of how a worker who suffered a severe injury was required to submit to a company drug test before being allowed to go to the hospital for treatment.

As striker Mike Compton said at the rally: "We are only referred to as 'bodies.' They have no regard for our well-being. We are constantly told to push harder. We are never done."

According to Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), around three-quarters of the workers in Elwood are "perma-temps" who are paid "at, near or sometimes below" the minimum wage and can be fired at the bosses' whim. WWJ, which is backed by the United Electrical Workers (UE), helped the Elwood workers organize to protest conditions and the company's failure to pay overtime and full wages.

Wal-Mart owns the Elwood warehouse, but it has a contract with Schneider Logistics to operate the facility. Schneider, in turn, uses several subcontractors to hire labor--"making it difficult for workers to sort out just who is responsible for violating their rights at any given moment," as Workday Minnesota reported.

In September, several dozen workers signed a petition protesting the terrible conditions inside the warehouse, and several, with the aid of WWJ, filed a lawsuit charging management with wage theft. After the workers who filed the lawsuit were told they were fired--then that they were suspended without pay--a group of petitioners tried to confront managers at the warehouse on September 15.

As one worker, Ted Ledwa, told David Moberg of In These Times:

We had to walk around the entire warehouse to collect everyone, and all the time, management was saying we were trespassing and had to leave. All we wanted to do was present the petition to management. As we came around the corner, managers with these riding forklifts cut our group in half, but we continued to walk.

They told us we were going to be escorted out of the building by the police. They refused to take the petition. My manager said that we don't want to mess with him. We said we didn't want to mess with anybody. We just wanted someone to take the petition and hear our grievances. Their answer is the police are on their way. You're going to be arrested.

Management's abuse led 30 workers to go on strike--they were later joined by eight more employees.

The Elwood strikers won enthusiastic support from Chicago unions and activists--including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), then in the midst of its nine-day strike. On October 1, CTU members were among hundreds of people who attended a solidarity demonstration and march to the Wal-Mart warehouse--which was closed for the day in anticipation of the protest.

As SocialistWorker.org reported, when a group of clergy and community supporters blocked the street in front of the facility, "[o]fficers decked out in riot gear arrived on the scene, accompanied by a black Hummer with a Long Range Acoustic Device...[a sound cannon] used to disperse crowds by with painful and sometimes damaging blasts of noise."

In typical fashion, Wal-Mart tried to deflect attention by attacking WWJ as a "union-funded, union-backed" organization to bring in dues money.

But the pressure of the strike and the solidarity it inspired forced management to give in. According to a WWJ statement, workers returned to their jobs this week having "won their principal demand for an end to illegal retaliation against workers protesting poor conditions." Management also agreed to pay full wages for the three weeks the workers were on strike.

Now the fight to win safe working conditions and dignity on the job will continue on the inside. "With this victory, we forced the company to respect our rights," Ted Ledwa said in the WWJ statement. "We showed that when workers are united, we can stand up to the biggest corporations in the world and win."

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THE ELWOOD strike is an important achievement in its own right, but it comes amid a wave of walkouts and protests against Wal-Mart.

Several days before the Elwood walkout, a group of workers at a Wal-Mart warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif., east of Los Angeles, near Riverside, also went on strike. Around 50 of the strikers participated in a six-day march to downtown LA to deliver letters of protest demanding payment of back wages and improved working conditions.

The strikers returned to work at the end of September. Though they only won a vague promise from Wal-Mart officials to review their contractors, the atmosphere at the warehouse is different now, according to their supporters. For example, when workers found continuing unsafe conditions, they told managers--who shut down the unsafe parts of the facility that day. Meanwhile, a California state agency launched an investigation into complaints that temperatures inside the warehouse reach as high as 120 degrees.

Now, the strikes seem to have spread to Wal-Mart stores.

On October 4, workers at nine Wal-Marts in the Los Angeles area walked off the job in an action coordinated by OUR Wal-Mart. The retailer is notorious for paying low wages to its associates and unilaterally cutting hours--in particular, so they can prevent employees from establishing themselves as full-timers, when they can access meager benefits.

But another main issue is the frequent retaliation by supervisors against any employee who speaks up about working conditions. Victoria Martinez, who works in the photo department of one of the stores, told Salon.com: "Every time I go into work, I get panic attacks...I'm always wondering what are they going to try to do to me when I come in."

At a rally of some 250 workers and their supporters outside a Wal-Mart in Pio Rivera, Evelin Cruz told Salon that she was "scared" about the strike. "But," she said, "I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you."

As this article was being written, walkouts organized by OUR Wal-Mart were taking place at stores in more than half a dozen metropolitan areas, including Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and San Francisco.

In some cases, only a small number of Wal-Mart workers appear to have joined the action, but the campaign is casting a spotlight on conditions for store workers in the same way that the warehouse walkouts have. As Margaret Van Ness, who works as an overnight stocker at an LA-area Wal-Mart, told the New York Times: "The managers at our store and others are running over their associates as if they didn't exist. They treat them like cattle...We need to bring back respect."

Though it has the backing of the UFCW, OUR Wal-Mart says it will press for better pay, benefits and working conditions without launching a drive for union recognition--at least for now. Some of the workers participating in this week's strikes plan to travel to Arkansas to demonstrate outside the company's investor meeting.

In all these actions, workers who participate are putting their livelihoods at risk. Non-union workers do have the right under labor law to go on strike without being punished. But management also has the right to permanently replace them and stop them from returning to work--unless they are judged to be protesting illegal labor practices. Wal-Mart claims it will follow the law--but the organizers of OUR Wal-Mart say they put little stock in legal protections where the giant retailer is concerned.

For decades, Wal-Mart has been a symbol of greed and union-busting in an era when Corporate America has been running a "race to the bottom" to make workers work longer and harder for less and less. The "beast of Bentonville" has fought tooth and nail against every attempt by employees to organize a union--and won each battle so far.

But the strikes at Wal-Mart warehouses and stores could be a sign that the tide has finally turned. The courage and determination of Wal-Mart workers should inspire labor and social justice activists to take the next steps forward in the struggle against corporate greed and power.