Taking a ride for respect

June 25, 2013

Johnny Mao spoke to OUR Walmart workers in Washington state about their recent "Ride for Respect"--and what they are doing in the fight against a corporate giant.

IN THE first week of June, OUR Walmart's "Ride for Respect" brought workers from more than 30 cities to the front door of Walmart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to protest at the company's annual shareholder's meeting.

Key starting points for the rides included Seattle, Florida, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and Maryland. One striking worker after another was picked up along the way to Bentonville, all culminating in a prolonged nationwide strike lasting two weeks.

Mary spoke on a June 23 panel in Seattle that included Walmart associates discussing their work on the heels of demonstrations in Bentonville. As she said:

The day of the strike--that was one of my proudest moments because three years before that, I had stood alone for a long time, fighting and complaining and being isolated from most of the associates in the store. But the night before we went to get on the bus...I could see all the hard work that the associates had done, and all the hard work that the [United Food and Commercial Workers union, UFCW] had done with a lot of the other groups backing us in the coalition. People who believed in us, people who knew that what Walmart was doing to us was wrong."

Walmart workers in Maryland picket outside their store in the buildup to the national mobilization to Bentonville
Walmart workers in Maryland picket outside their store in the buildup to the national mobilization to Bentonville (Stephen Melkisethian)

The panel was one of many OUR Walmart report-backs taking place in cities and towns across the nation. Mary added:

They had taken away our human rights, our equal rights--which is basically the same thing...[T]hey had taken that from us, and they had done it so clever that we didn't really see it--we were just happy with having a job, and happy with letting them mistreat us and treat us like garbage. But that night, when we were all here celebrating and getting ready to go, that was the most powerful thing I had seen within an organization.

Named after the 1961 Freedom Rides, a tactic by Black and white civil rights activists aimed at desegregating public transportation throughout the South, the OUR Walmart riders continued the legacy of civil rights and labor history.

Upon arriving in Bentonville, the riders were greeted by Dolores Huerta, a founding member of the United Farm Workers. Huerta told tales of the UFW struggle, including the strikes, boycotts and organizing drives to form a union that would defend the rights of those workers growing and harvesting crops.

The struggle of the Freedom Riders and the UFW parallels that of the OUR Walmart workers, who organized strikes and protests at roughly 1,000 stores across the country this past year to demand basic human and economic rights in the workplace. These efforts also took aim at one of the biggest corporate moneymakers of all--with a national day of actions on America's largest shopping holiday, Black Friday.

According to Abbie Blumberg, an organizer with OUR Walmart:

Walmart has had its methods of trying to shut down associates down when they want to speak up--when they want to make Walmart a better place to work and make their lives better. We've accomplished incredible things, like strikes on a smaller scale...One thing that we have that WalMart doesn't--we have each other to find that courage. It's only through fear that you find courage and step forward. We all give back to each other.

ACCORDING TO an OUR Walmart report on the week of events in Bentonville, in the morning, strikers lined up across the front of the Walmart headquarters and greeted employees with signs. The picketers taped their mouths shut, with "ULP [unfair labor practices] strike" and "On Strike" written across the tape.

Later that week, strikers took the action one step further by bringing their message directly to the house of Jim Walton of Walton Enterprises--the owners of Walmart. Workers lined up on the road outside the Walton household and sang protest songs. The police were at the Walton's property on the group's arrival, forcing the protesters to leave almost immediately.

These actions were just two of many by strikers in Bentonville. A former Bangladeshi child sweatshop worker and labor activist, Kalpona Akter, spoke about the 1,239 lives lost within the last six months in Bangladeshi garment factory accidents.

On the last day, the day of the shareholders meeting, police came out in a show of force and set up six "protest zones" outside the meeting. They sat empty, however, as a set of Walmart strikers entered with shareholder status and delivered signatures to demand the reinstatement of a worker who had been fired for speaking out.

"People are being put back into slavery, and I don't want to go back there--I know that history, " said Mary at the June 23 panel of Walmart associates in Seattle. "They're just taking everything away from the associates, and so we need to let the community, the allies, everybody--we need to let people know this and get it out there."

Across the nation, Walmart management has stepped up the attacks on workers. As of June 21, five of the 21 workers striking in Washington state have been fired, with several more suspended and "coached" due to striking in Bentonville.

"Within the last 24 to 48 hours, we've had a wave of coachings--coachings are where people get a verbal warning or they get fired," said Peter Diaz, national field coordinator at OUR Walmart. "With the strike, they've been coaching people on their absences. So we need a legal strategy, and we're going to fight back on that. We think this is an attack on these workers' freedom of speech rights and their rights as workers."

Diaz added: "We need to take it to the next level in the stores--up to and including civil disobedience and getting people arrested. We need to bring pain into the stores where workers have been treated like they've been treated. We are going to say, "No, you are not going to take our rights away."

HERE, WORKERS from Walmart locations in Federal Way and Mount Vernon, Wash., share their stories of resistance and determination in light of retaliation from Walmart management since the Ride for Respect to Bentonville.

Three weeks after Bentonville, Walmart has now has started to play their little games...Yesterday, there were three people in my store who got coached--and they retaliated against associates in other locations.

The management came together, and they got a plan and they decided to intimidate even more. Myself, I was put on a medical leave of absence and my position was eliminated--after 14 years, I no longer have that position. It was taken illegally, and the coachings were given illegally to the other associates.

So right now, they are attacking, and what it's doing is it's starting to scare the other OUR Walmart members we have in the store. So now it's time to really make a lot of noise and stand up and let them know that even though you can continue with your tactics and try to scare us, we're still here.

We deserve to be treated right, we deserve to have medical benefits, we deserve to have places to live, we deserve to not have to live in our cars. Our children deserve a place to live.

I'm thinking that one of things we should probably do next is have another big Federal Way strike. We've come a long way, and now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to really go for it, because they're really starting to hit us hard. That means we're winning, because they're afraid of us, and they're just coming up with anything they can possibly think of. It's all illegal, but they're doing it anyway, because they're afraid of us, and we're growing.

We are huge now. Compared to four years ago, there are associates everywhere and so many stories. We all have different stories, but we all have the same story: We work for a company that brutally retaliates against human beings. Nobody should be allowed to beat you down. Nobody. I don't care who they are. Nobody should be allowed to take away every bit of self-respect that you have. And we're scared. We're scared of Walmart, but we're also more afraid of what will happen to our children.

I don't want to see my granddaughter working or being around a company or people that treat her the same way I see them treating my associates and their families. I don't want that. And there's a good chance that she and everybody else we know--if Walmart continues to grow like they are--will all be in retail, one way or another.

I'm going back to work next week. I'm standing up for the lady in the garden department who was made homeless twice in one year. I'm standing up for everybody in that store who is too afraid to stand up for themselves.

It has got to stop. The retaliation has got to stop. Cutting the hours has got to stop. It's nothing but greed, they just want their big bonuses, and they don't care how bad they hurt us to get it. I think that's been proven by the buildings in Bangladesh that caught on fire and collapsed.

They don't care, they just want their money. And that's why I'm in this organization, and I'm proud to be in it. I hope I'm still in it and around when Walmart has to face their responsibilities.

We are afraid of them, but they are now afraid of us. We're scared because we're trying to expose them, and they don't want us to. We know they're afraid because they'll have the police waiting for us everywhere we go before we get there and close the town square down. We've got them scared, and we've succeeded a lot in this last Bentonville trip.

This is a fight for everybody, and it means I'm here. I don't give up, I don't stop. I fight for a million workers at Walmart. I talked to my wife last night. If I've lost my job, I'm going to invite media, and I'm going to tell them everything about what Walmart did to workers.

That is my goal. And I do not stop. I thank God for watching me every day in what I'm doing, and using me for change in the biggest company in the world.

If they arrest me. I don't care. I want to fight. I want to spread the word about what is right. It's not right for the biggest company in the world to evict its workers. Walmart has kept us silent because it is the strongest company in the world. It's not right. It is up to all human beings in the world to help each other and make it even.

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