Wal-Mart workers won’t rest

April 24, 2013

Darrin Hoop reports on efforts by Wal-Mart workers to keep up the struggle for justice--in stores, warehouses and throughout the retail giant's supply chain.

THE ONGOING struggle for respect and basic workplace rights at Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the world, continues at stores and warehouses in the U.S. as well as at Wal-Mart suppliers around the world.

On April 6, 10 members of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a national group led by store workers and supported by organized labor, and more than 20 community allies rallied in the pouring rain outside the Wal-Mart store in Lakewood, Wash.

A 10-year employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation summed up what the organizing is all about:

The biggest thing for me is I have teenage boys. They may be Wal-Mart employees one day. I'm not fighting for myself. I'm fighting for the future. The reason I joined OUR Walmart is that Wal-Mart is known for working their associates into the ground and spitting them out. I want to make sure that doesn't happen anymore. Management talks about an open door and how we have a voice. One voice won't get much done. But a whole community of voices will get a lot done.

Wal-Mart workers and their families take part in the national Black Friday day of action in 2012
Wal-Mart workers and their families take part in the national Black Friday day of action in 2012

This marked the first action in the U.S. since a 60-day break from picketing, according to organizers. The break, which expired at the end of March, resulted from a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) settlement between Wal-Mart, OUR Walmart and its ally, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint against the UFCW in early November for what it claimed was "illegal picketing" at its stores ahead of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The settlement precluded the NLRB from taking any official action on the complaint. The case will be dropped in six months if the board determines that the union has upheld the terms of the settlement.

Despite the obvious attempt by management to intimidate Wal-Mart workers, it's unclear what effect the early November complaint with the NLRB had on the Black Friday actions. Spokespeople for Wal-Mart claimed only 50 "associates" took part around the U.S. In reality, workers and their supporters protested at roughly 1,000 stores in all but four of the 50 states on that day.

The NLRB settlement also includes the agreement that "OUR Walmart and the UFCW have no intent to have Wal-Mart recognize or bargain with the UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Wal-Mart employees," according to Elena Perez, coordinator of Making Change at Wal-Mart.

BUT DESPITE this, the Lakewood action showed that this group of workers at least never stopped their organizing inside the stores. And though the 30 protesters who turned out April 6 was smaller than the 300 who showed up in Renton, Wash., on Black Friday, the April 6 rally included more visible Wal-Mart workers and the action showed a greater level of confidence on the workers' part.

The workers led a dance-step routine about the importance of workers rights inside the store right in front of the cash registers--in full view of dozens of other workers, customers, management and security personnel. Once outside the store, they, with allies surrounding them, presented a petition directly to the store manager, flanked by store security, with a couple dozen signatures of allies calling on store management to agree to not retaliate against any workers taking part in the days action.

One of the more vocal leaders of this action was 25-year-old Preston, who has worked at Wal-Mart for four years. In an interview, Preston said:

Today's rally was about showing Wal-Mart that they are understaffed. That there are some changes that need to be made at Wal-Mart. Being a member of the organization and also a fellow worker in the workplace, I know what goes on. So today's action was about no retaliation for any new associates that are interested in joining our organization that have issues going on with them within their workplace.

One reason for the workers' confidence might have something to do with the story of Jerry Paladan, a six-year Wal-Mart employee. Jerry is another outspoken leader of OUR Walmart. He struck on Black Friday, spoke at the rally and helped lead the march in front of the Federal Way store that day.

Jerry explained in an interview:

Every day I go into work, Wal-Mart disrespects the workers. It's simple. I fight for workers' rights. When I tell the truth, management would yell at me and threaten me. I lost my full-time job because my manager said, "You open your mouth all the time." I turned in a 13-page ULP charge against management at my Federal Way store. It went to court, and I won! Now management treats me like a king because they are scared. I told my coworkers that they can do this too. My management has been transferred to different stores now as a result of the ULP.

Wal-Mart management was required to post the NLRB settlement in stores throughout the U.S. "Wal-Mart is committed to obey federal law and respect the rights of workers to speak up at work, stand together, talk about OUR Walmart, and act collectively," reads the poster, according to OUR Walmart.

IN ADDITION to ongoing organizing inside Wal-Mart's retail stores, warehouse workers at Wal-Mart suppliers have also continued their organizing.

On March 1, Warehouse Workers United, which is made up of warehouse workers in Southern California's Inland Empire, and their supporters delivered a petition with nearly 20,000 signatures to two members of Wal-Mart's corporate board. The petition demands that Wal-Mart take responsibility for conditions in its supply chain.

Workers at Quetico, a warehouse in Chino, Calif., launched the petition drive after the state ruled that "865 workers had more than $1 million in wages stolen from them." Wal-Mart is the main purchaser of the merchandise they handle. Since the decision, Quetico has stepped up its harassment of the workers and is threatening to appeal the ruling.

On April 9, workers representing various parts of Wal-Mart's global supply chain met in Los Angeles to release "core principles that would ensure basic labor standards in the megaretailer's global supply chain."

Workers, community leaders and representatives of several organizations were in attendance, including the National Guestworker Alliance, Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, Warehouse Workers United, New Labor, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and Jobs with Justice.

Internationally, garment workers who supply clothes for Wal-Mart are also standing up to the miserable pay and sweatshop conditions that they endure at the hands of Wal-Mart's suppliers.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, some 200 workers at the Kingsland factory used to sew underwear for Wal-Mart suppliers. But in December, the Kingsland bosses closed the factory and tried to avoid paying workers back wages and severance pay that they were due. So starting in early January, the workers slept in front of the factory to prevent machinery from being moved out and to demand the money owed to them. Two days after 82 workers started a hunger strike, the company caved.

Meanwhile in Tipitapa, Nicaragua, SAE-E, a clothes supplier for Wal-Mart, paid a mob of 300 thugs to brutally attack a March 4 peaceful protest of workers. The goons used scissors, metal pipes and other weapons, according to the Workers Rights Consortium.

The 8,000 workers at SAE-E, who are paid less than $1 per hour, are struggling to form a new union. During this process, workers have been bribed, yelled at by management and denied trips to the bathroom, and at least 16 were fired for their organizing. A petition has been launched calling for international support to stand up to these brutal conditions.

Collectively, these struggles represent a growing global network of resistance against Wal-Mart, and within this, the re-introduction of the strike weapon over the last year points the way forward.

Last September, around 30 nonunion workers walked out of their warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif., in their first strike ever. Some of them, along with supporters, took part in a 50-mile march from Riverside to Los Angeles. This pilgrimage, as they called it, followed the route that the goods they load travel daily.

Then in October, OUR Walmart members struck in more than 12 cities and held protests at more than 200 stores around the U.S.

The Black Friday strikes and protests marked the high point so far. The most recent strike took place February 7 when Wal-Mart workers in Maryland and Texas struck against Wal-Mart's attempts to silence workers fighting for their rights, which constitutes an unfair labor practice.

Taken together, these protests and strikes illustrate that a growing number of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million workers will no longer tolerate horrible pay and working conditions. And they are seeing firsthand the widespread support and solidarity for their struggle among unions and the community in general. In turn, the Wal-Mart workers' resistance should inspire workers internationally to stand up to their own bosses.

Many workers, including the 10-year Wal-Mart veteran at the Lakewood protest, understand the wider implications of how their struggle can affect workers elsewhere: "What will end up happening is that Wal-Mart sets a precedent for other companies that it's okay to disrespect and pay unfair wages. If we don't take a stand now, what's left for the next generation?"

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