Walmart’s greed is showing

December 5, 2013

Alex Schmaus, Georgette Kirkendall and Elizabeth Schulte report on Black Friday protests across the country, which took aim at Walmart's Scrooge-like labor policies.

"THERE ARE a lot of hungry workers, a lot of workers are eating Top Ramen all the time," said Pam Davis, a former Walmart worker who was protesting in front of the Walmart store in San Leandro, Calif., on November 29.

Davis is part of a growing number of workers who are standing up and exposing the truth about wealthy corporations like Walmart--and they're being joined by hundreds of supporters who are making this fight their own.

Low-wage workers are turning up the heat this winter, with a number of campaigns targeting low-wage employers over the holidays, including protests on Thursday, December 5, in support of fast-food workers at McDonald's and other fast-food chains, who are calling for improved wages and working conditions. Their demand is a living wage of $15 an hour.

The recent campaigns by low-wage workers have become contagious--because more and more people are angered by the hypocrisy of multibillion-dollar companies squeezing workers to the bone.

For instance, Walmart sales workers--or "associates," as management calls them--make $8.87 per hour on average, with cashiers making just $8.48 an hour on average. Many make so little that they depend on public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid, to make ends meet.

Chicagoans join Walmart workers in this year's Black Friday day of action
Chicagoans join Walmart workers in this year's Black Friday day of action (Scott Marshall)

Meanwhile, Walmart's annual profits stand at $17 billion, and heirs to the Walton family fortune are numbers six, seven, eight and 9 on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans. So it isn't hard to see how this corporation could easily pay its employees $15 an hour.

On the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, workers and their supporters turned out to Black Friday protests called by the group OUR Walmart at some 1,500 Walmart stores.

THE PROTEST in San Leandro, where Pam Davis was picketing, was bigger than most, but far from unique. A few hundred people briefly blocking Hesperian Boulevard in front of the store. Five were arrested after standing amid the busy lanes of traffic.

Workers were protesting to draw attention to low wages and poor working conditions--but also to expose the company's punitive treatment of workers who speak out.

The 56-year-old Pam Davis is one of those workers. She was fired from a Richmond, Calif., Walmart last summer, along with nearly 80 other Walmart workers illegally disciplined following a strike and protest at the annual Walmart shareholders meeting in Bentonville, Ark. As Davis said:

We are raising awareness. A lot of workers are intimidated. There are workers in the stores who don't know their rights, workers who don't know they have a right to overtime pay, workers who don't know they have a right to be protected from wage theft...

The main factor is workers need to know they have a right to speak up. I'm here to take a stand. I'm not afraid to speak up. Yes, I would sign a union card today. My mother worked 20-plus years as a union clerk at Safeway. We don't want two or three jobs. We want one good job with a livable wage that brings us out of poverty. We aren't giving up the fight.

Dominic Ware, another former "associate" who was fired from the Walmart in San Leandro, performed the role of master of ceremonies during the rally. "It's very important, what's happening at Walmart," Ware said, "Walmart sets the bar; it's a key point to attack. We can show other corporations they also need to pay a living wage."

According to the Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which backs OUR Walmart, actions took place at some 1,500 Wal-Mart locations across the country this year, up from about 400 locations last year.

Over the last year, workers have taken part in smaller walkouts, the longest one lasting nine days. Walmart has retaliated against workers in a number of these cases, including firing workers, but workers have continued to protest.

Fremont, Calif., Walmart worker Derrick Sanders, who attended the San Leandro rally on Black Friday, went out on strike the day before. "There's a lot of solidarity toward the fired workers among those who are still working," said Sanders. "Walmart tried to intimidate us, but they didn't realize that OUR Walmart doesn't die, we multiply."

UFCW President Joe Hansen spoke to the rally, saying, "Thousands of people are standing up across the country for one thing: respect for workers at Walmart and for all workers."

"This is the future of the labor movement," said UFCW Local 5 President Ron Lind. "Standing up for Walmart workers, fast-food workers and other low wage workers."

IN CHICAGO, more than 100 union members, community organizers and activists came out to support Walmart workers striking at two locations in Chicago, on the West Side and Lakeview neighborhoods. Among the groups that stood with Walmart workers were the United Steel Workers, Chicago Teacher Union, the stagehands union, AFSCME, Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago/Fight for 15, Jobs with Justice and Northsiders for Justice.

One week before the protest, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Walmart had violated labor law when it illegally "threatened, disciplined and/or terminated employees" for striking and protesting their working conditions. So far, the board has taken a wait-and-see attitude about whether the corporation will comply with its ruling. But its past performance shows that Walmart isn't going to do anything unless there's pressure on them.

When OUR Walmart campaign organizers tried to deliver the NLRB ruling at the West Side location, the manager confronted protesters and threatened them with arrest, eventually pushing one striking worker onto the sidewalk. Four striking workers and their supporters picketed on the sidewalk, chanting, "Walmart, you can't hide. We can see your greedy side."

Myron Byrd, a lifetime West Sider, has been working at Walmart for two years. "We're trying to make a living and keep our jobs," Byrd said. "But they want you to do three times the work for the same amount of pay, and that was the last straw for me."

He's asking Walmart to respect him and his co-workers for the hard work they do. "Me, I work as a maintenance worker. I not only clean floors, clean bathrooms and whatnot. I also strip floors, wax floors and I pull up tile. All that at $9.75 and now $10.15 an hour, when I could have been making $17 or $18 an hour somewhere else."

Byrd also has a health condition that sometimes requires he use a cane when moving heavy machinery around the store. But he's still required to do three times more than what Walmart lists in his job description.

He says he feels empowered by the NLRB ruling that says Walmart can't retaliate against employees who speak out. "But this is the thing: We don't want them to settle just on the NLRB ruling. We want them to settle on the whole thing--that means better wages, respect, and take care of Walmart workers."

Byrd says that before he started organizing, he was "the older quiet guy." But now, he says, his co-workers "heard about me being in OUR Walmart, and they say, 'Hey, I've seen you on TV. You're standing up. Keep doing what you do.' We draw the line at disrespect and retaliation."

Byrd believes the majority of customers oppose the way Walmart treats and pays its workers. "We're letting people know today," he said. "Customers are standing on the corner watching us. This is working; it's deterring a lot of people [from going into the store]. They know we wouldn't be out here unless we were fighting for something real."

There are larger stakes that involve the whole community. "This is my side of town," Byrd said. "I was here when they said they were moving in. They said they were going to pay a living wage. They said they were going to pay $11 an hour, and so everyone was for this Walmart. After a while, things started changing. Pay started being drastically cut down. Now people say, hey, they work you like a slave here."

Walmart has also stolen money from Chicago Public Schools by accepting Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which diverts tax revenue into so-called "development" schemes selected personally by Mayor Rahm Emanuel--like helping open a Walmart store. "We're parents, too, with our kids going to school," said Byrd. "When people start to see the connections, they might not want to shop here anymore if Walmart steals their money and doesn't pay their workers fairly."

Workers and supporters also went to the upscale Lakeview neighborhood, where about nine people, including Byrd, were arrested for blocking a street to demand accountability from Walmart. Security guards and managers barricaded the store doors, fearful that activists would try and enter the store.

Activists see these Black Friday protests as an important step in organizing greater opposition to poverty wages and substandard working conditions--from Walmart to a low-wage employer near you.

Patrick Delsoin and Trish Kahle contributed to this article.

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