Moms on strike at Walmart

Stephanie Schwartz reports from the Bay Area on days of action earlier this month highlighting the demands of working mothers at Walmart.

Walmart moms demanding a living wage in Tampa, Fla. (OUR Walmart)Walmart moms demanding a living wage in Tampa, Fla. (OUR Walmart)

WORKING MOTHERS walked off the store floors at Walmarts in 20 states during the first week of June as part of a nationally coordinated action to draw attention to low wages and disrespect from management at the retail giant.

The protests put a national media spotlight on Walmart moms. Why mothers in particular? Pauline Rivera, a striking worker from the Walmart in Milpitas, Calif., and member of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), described what it's like to be a mom working at Walmart: "It's really hard especially if you have different times like different shifts and not full hours."

Many Walmart workers are classified as full time, but rarely receive 40 hours a week, keeping them from earning their anticipated salary or qualifying for benefits. Other workers want to work part time in order to raise children or take community college classes, but it's nearly impossible to schedule child care or attend regular courses when Walmart changes workers' shifts from week to week.

Often, this lack of hours for workers happens alongside understaffed stores with long lines at the cash registers and empty shelves. Walmart moms face a double burden of salaries too low to take care of their children and inconsistent hours to allow them to find quality child care in advance. The average Walmart worker receives only $8.80 an hour. OUR Walmart's salary demand is a minimum of $25,000 for full-time workers.

Even before becoming moms, pregnant women at Walmart faced discrimination. Women who presented Walmart with doctors orders limiting their physical activity during pregnancy were made to go on involuntary leave, rather than take on less strenuous assignments.

That is, until OUR Walmart members formed a group called Respect the Bump to challenge violations of pregnant workers' rights. This effort succeeded in changing Walmart's policy to allow for pregnant workers to receive alternate assignments and keep their hours.

Walmart moms are far from the only women workers suffering economically. Women are overrepresented in many service-sector jobs, making up 72 percent of tipped workers, who in many states make below the minimum wage, and 90 percent of domestic workers. As a low-wage workers movement has developed, it by necessity has to take up issues women's rights, including the wage gap, child care and pregnancy accommodations.

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WORKERS ACROSS the service sector participating in OUR Walmart or the Fight for 15 see the struggles at their own workplace as linked to the larger fight for economic justice.

At an action to support striking Walmart workers in Union City, Calif., Selena Negrete, who joined the East Bay Organizing Committee, the local Fight for 15 group, said he was there "because of the fact that it shows it doesn't matter where you work. All workers deserve to be treated equally. These big franchises that don't see that."

As for Walmart itself, it's not difficult to figure out where the company could find the money to pay workers a living wage. The Walton family is currently worth about $140 billion, with four family members ranking among the 10 richest people in the U.S. By the way, in order to pay all of Walmart's 2.2 million employees the annual salary they demand of $25,000, it would cost $55 billion, leaving the majority of the money to invest for next year's salary. And that's what's possible if Walmart sold goods at cost, which is not even remotely close to the truth.

We know Walmart doesn't impose low wages throughout the company. Former CEO Michael Duke took home almost $116 million in so-called performance pay from 2009 to 2014--which is, by the way, only slightly more than the $104 million in tax breaks for $298 million in performance pay awarded to eight top executives during the same period.

Walmart has so much money that it has been able to severely hinder OUR Walmart's efforts to help workers organize through legal obstacles. The company won a restraining order from an Arkansaw court, and OUR Walmart is no longer able to demonstrate at the annual shareholders' meetings. Various local injunctions also block organizers, including those who are former Walmart associates, from entering stores or prevent OUR Walmart from holding actions at particular stores.

While the National Labor Relations Board ruled in January that Walmart illegally fired more than 60 workers for going on a legally protected unfair labor practices strike, Walmart has the funds to fight this ruling in court, and it could be years before the workers are rehired, if ever.

Given Walmart's size and strength, it's important to note the courage and tenacity of workers who continue to organize. Small victories like rights for pregnant workers and improved scheduling systems can help build the confidence of workers to take on Walmart.

There is a ways to go in this struggle, but with Walmart moms leading the way, Walmart looks a little less invincible than it once did.