Crashing Walmart's party

Walmart is celebrating another good year, but its workers can't make ends meet. Elizabeth Schulte reports on protests at the company's shareholders' meeting.

Walmart workers demand justice outside the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas  (Mark F. Henning | OUR Walmart)Walmart workers demand justice outside the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas (Mark F. Henning | OUR Walmart)

WALMART IS throwing a party, and it's sparing no expense, as this high-profit, low-wage employer prepares for its annual shareholders' meeting on June 7.

Too bad Walmart couldn't find a way to share a little with its employees--so now hundreds of Walmart workers from across the country are converging at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

The caravan is part of the OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) campaign. In November, it helped organize a day of action on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, which inspired walkouts and rallies at hundreds of stores across the country.

This time, some 100 Walmart "associates" went on strike at stores in California, Massachusetts and Miami--initiating the first-ever prolonged strike at the retail behemoth--promising to stay out through at least the shareholder's meeting on June 7.

Workers in more than 30 cities joined the strikers in what they're calling the "Ride for Respect" to Bentonville. The idea for the caravans was sparked by the 1961 Freedom Rides, in which Black and white civil rights activists boarded buses to protest segregation in the South.

Barbara Getz is one of those striking workers. The 45-year-old makes just $10 an hour as an overnight stocker at a Walmart in Aurora, Colo.

"This is the first time in my life I'm standing up for something I know is right," Getz told Bloomberg Businessweek. "Walmart is the biggest retailer in the world, and we want them to set a high standard."

Right now, Walmart sets a high standard--in low wages and poor working conditions. The average wage comes to just $8.81, and it's extremely difficult to get enough hours to live on. On top of that, Walmart uses every trick in the book to avoid providing workers with company benefits.

Like other low-wage employers, Walmart keeps workers' wages so low that many of them qualify for government aid. According to a recent report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, "The Low-Wage Drag on Our Economy," which analyzed data released by Wisconsin's Medicaid program, "a single 300-person Walmart Supercenter store in Wisconsin likely costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year and could cost taxpayers up to $1,744,590 per year--about $5,815 per employee."

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WORKERS ARE also taking a stand against a campaign of abuse and intimidation on the part of Walmart management against anyone who dares to speak out against working conditions.

In the lead-up to the Black Friday actions, Walmart filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) aiming to put a stop to the protests by claiming that the protests constituted "illegal picketing" on the part of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a union that is affiliated with OUR Walmart.

In January, a deal was reached with the NLRB, with the UFCW reasserting that the actions were organized to demand better working conditions, not union representation, and agreeing not to picket for 60 days.

Walmart again escalated its intimidation of workers. And on May 23, OUR Walmart filed 30 new counts of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including charges that the company unlawfully intimidated and disciplined workers who have spoken out, spied on workers and organizers, and terminated workers involved in protected activity.

Carlton Smith had worked at Walmart for 17 years in Paramount, Calif., when he was terminated on May 8, allegedly because his performance was lacking. But "performance" clearly wasn't Smith's problem from management's point of view, since they recently awarded him "Associate of the Month." Smith's problem was that he spoke out.

Smith went on strike Black Friday. And before that, he joined three other OUR Walmart activists to introduce a resolution at last year's Walmart shareholder meeting calling for restricting executive bonuses.

Vanessa Ferriera worked at Walmart in Ft. Cloud, Fla., for eight years decorating cakes when she was fired in May. When she took part in a Black Friday walkout at her store, management responded by calling in the police to arrest her and her family for trespassing.

But Ferriera isn't letting that be the end of the story--she's part of the caravan to Bentonville.

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WALMART'S PUBLIC relations machine went into motion this week, claiming that the protesters were little more than paid agents. "Let me be clear these associates are not part of Walmart," Walmart CEO Gisel Ruiz told a stadium full of workers the company shipped to Arkansas to attend this week's festivities.

"They are part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and they are paid to be here and disrupt this week's activities and that is just plain wrong," Ruiz said.

Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan called this week's party in Bentonville "a celebration of our 2.2 million associates who work hard every day so people around the world can live better."

But if they really wanted to celebrate their employees, Walmart should start by stopping the intimidation and firing of those who dare to speak out.

Walmart has spent billions of dollars over the years trying create a workplace where workers are either too misinformed--or too afraid--to seek the protection of a union. Past organizing drives have been met with the most vicious opposition on the part of management, and Walmart spends a lot of time "educating" its employees on evils of unions.

When workers in the meat department at a store in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join the UFCW, becoming the first U.S. workers to vote in a union at Walmart, the company responded by closing down its meat-cutting operations and switching to prepackaged meat.

Clearly, Walmart will not give into workers' demands without a fight.

This time around, Walmart workers are beginning to see that they have allies in this struggle--as low-wage workers in retail, restaurant and fast-food chains are beginning to get organized in campaigns like the Fight for 15 and Fast Food Forward.

And Walmart workers see the importance of taking up other workers' struggles and linking it to their own.

As part of this week of action, more than 300 Walmart workers gathered outside the company's home office to deliver a fire safety agreement, which called for raising fire safety standards at factories overseas. Earlier this year in Bangladesh, more than 1,200 people were killed in a factory that made clothes for Walmart, among other retailers.

This week of actions is a step toward building the solidarity that will be necessary--inside and outside the walls of Walmart--to take on this ruthless corporation.