Standing up to make Wal-Mart respect us

Workers and their supporters are planning walkouts and protests at as many as 1,000 Wal-Mart stores on Black Friday--the busiest shopping day of the year--to publicize their demands for better pay and benefits, safe working conditions, and dignity on the job.

These actions come in the wake of September and October strikes at Wal-Mart distribution centers and then at stores--actions that grabbed national headlines as a symbol of resistance to Corporate America's drive to maintain a low-wage, low-respect workforce. The store walkouts have been organized by OUR Walmart, an independent campaign led by Wal-Mart workers, with support from the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Josue Mata works the overnight shift at a Wal-Mart store in Dallas. For the past year, he has been part of the OUR Walmart campaign--he participates in a nationwide committee of workers that has met to plan the group's protests, including the Black Friday walkout. He talked to Alan Maass about Wal-Mart and the resistance that workers are organizing.

Wal-Mart workers protest outside corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. (Marc F. Henning)Wal-Mart workers protest outside corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. (Marc F. Henning)

CAN YOU talk about what it's like at Wal-Mart and how that connects to the campaign?

THE ISSUES that I face are basically what associates face every day all over the country. It might not be all of the same issues for all of us, but there are a lot in common. There are so many issues. For example, we don't have the equipment that we need to perform the job 100 percent. And the equipment we have isn't running at 100 percent.

Right now, I'm part of an organization fighting for respect, and they know it because I've been really vocal. So they're trying to retaliate against me. It's almost like you can't really notice if you don't pay attention, but I always catch them in the act.

WHAT'S IT like to go to management with a problem as an individual? Are you taken seriously?

ACTUALLY, Wal-Mart has a policy for complaints and ideas that they call an "open-door" policy. But unfortunately, for most of the people who have been using it, the only door that's been open for them is the exit door.

The policy is supposed to give you the chance to go to an immediate supervisor with a problem or a suggestion or any reason--and if you don't feel like the immediate supervisor did anything, then you can just go another step up the ladder in the chain of command. So you can go all the way up to your market managers.

But instead of the confidentiality we're supposed to have, management keeps telling the other managers, "Hey, this guy told me this," or "Can you believe that?" And then they just kind of make up their answers: we don't have the money, or we don't have the supplies, or we don't have this, I can't do anything right now, I'm too busy.

Even if you keep up with it, they set up the system so eventually you're going to get tired of it, and you're going to end up not caring, so you're not going to bother them anymore. And for the people who actually go the extra step, the managers keep looking for them. They check their records and how many write-ups they have, or they try to provoke them--get them as many write-ups as they can and then eventually fire them.

WAL-MART is infamous for keeping pay low and benefits lower, but there are all kinds of other issues coming up in these protests--like hours and assignments. How does that work for you on the overnight shift?

I'VE BEEN with the company for more than a year now. I got hired in July of last year. It took me a couple weeks to notice everything that was going on. And I joined OUR Walmart in December.

Since I joined the OUR Walmart, I've been really active and really vocal. They really don't go after me--they give me my 40 hours. And they've been really careful about the way they treat me, the way they talk to me, and how they act around me.

But if people don't say anything, then they take advantage. They give people crazy, crazy schedules--like they'll assign someone to 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then they go home and they'll have to be back at 5 a.m. for their next shift. Or sometimes they don't need people that week, so they give them 20 hours. Whenever they find the chance to screw somebody up, they do it.

HOW DID you get involved in OUR Walmart?

DURING YOUR week of training, they give you this video--this anti-union video. The guy who was training us actually said, "There's going to be a group of people trying to approach you and trying to get you to do this, trying to get you to do that. But the only thing they want is your money."

That kind of awakened my curiosity, because if a company as big as Wal-Mart is worried about a group of people to the point that they're going to spend time and money to let their new associates know that they're going to be approached, my thought was: that group must be doing something good.

I heard some of my co-workers were part of the association, but nobody would really give me an exact idea of what it was about. Then, one day I was going on my break, and one of my co-workers was talking to the organizers. So I approached them, and the organizers talked to me and explained a little bit about what was going on and what we're fighting for. And I immediately said, "Hey, I'm on board, sign me up."

OUR WALMART organized its first walkouts in early October, and now the group is predicting actions and protests at 1,000 stores on the day after Thanksgiving. What do you think Black Friday will look like?

RIGHT NOW, we don't know the exact number, but I'm pretty sure that at the end of the day on Thursday and Friday, we're going to have a lot of more associates participating than we have members. Because pretty much everybody is tired of the Wal-Mart way. We love the work, we love our jobs, we're thankful for the jobs. The thing that we are don't agree about is the way management treats people and the way the system makes people so miserable and the work so hard and complicated.

It's just really hard to work there. They could do it a different way to make the work easier for you, but they want you to do it their way, and their way is twice as hard. So everybody is tired of that. Enough is enough--it's been 50 years.

DO YOU think this struggle at Wal-Mart will have a wider impact?

IF YOU can change Wal-Mart, you basically change the world. That's how much Wal-Mart means to other companies.

Black Friday is an example. Wal-Mart was the first one to come out and say, "We're going to have Black Friday start at 12 midnight." Then everybody else was doing that, too. Then Wal-Mart started at 10 p.m. on Thursday, and everybody else started doing that. Now Wal-Mart wants to start Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thursday, and everyone else is following.

Companies like Kroger look at what Wal-Mart is getting away with, and they say, "We don't have that. They don't have a union, but we do. So why do we have to have a union?" Everybody else is watching what Wal-Mart is doing, and they want to do what Wal-Mart does so they can make more money. It's all about greed.

But what we're doing right now is to show everybody else that it's not going to be so easy to get rid of the people's rights--because there's always going to be somebody who is going to fight.

We want to change Wal-Mart to have a better Wal-Mart. I have four kids. I'm not doing this because I want something better for me. I'm a part of this campaign because I want them to grow up in a society where companies like Wal-Mart respect people--where they give them good pay, good health care and basic respect for being human beings. That's why I'm doing this.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke