Fighting the hunger games at Walmart

November 26, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte reports on preparations for Black Friday protests at Walmart.

FOR THE third Black Friday in a row, Walmart workers are turning the busiest shipping day of the year into the busiest protest day of the year at the country's largest retailer. The demands of this year's protests are $15 an hour, full-time hours and an end to retaliation by management.

The fact that this day of action is taking place the day after Thanksgiving dramatizes the difficulty many Walmart employees face just feeding their families. With average wages of just $8.81 an hour, Walmart employees who work "full time"--which, according to Walmart, is 34 hours a week--make $15,500 per year, which is about $8,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

"There are people who are homeless and living in their cars who work at Walmart and can't afford to pay rent," Venanzi Luna, a Walmart employee and OUR Walmart activist living in Southern California, said in an interview. "They can't afford a better life, because they live check by check."

One in 10 retail workers are employed at Walmart, so the chain sets the standard for the whole low-wage industry. And Walmart sets the standard very, very, very low.

Walmart workers in Seattle on strike last year march for living wages and respectful conditions
Walmart workers in Seattle on strike last year march for living wages and respectful conditions (OUR Walmart)

Walmart keeps workers part-time, even though workers would like to work more hours, a trend that has been repeated throughout the retail industry. Since 2006, the retail and wholesale sector has cut 1 million full-time jobs while adding 500,000 part-time jobs, according to a report by Eat Drink Politics.

All of these factors make Walmart workers a prime target for hunger. Last holiday season's reports of a Canton, Ohio, Walmart store taking up a food collection for its own workers were repeated this year in Frankfort, Indiana, and other cities.

"I want to know if the Waltons are aware that their workers are in poverty and if they care," said Martha Sellers, a Walmart worker from Paramount, California, quoted on the "Walmart Hunger Games" Tumblr. Sellers says she lost 60 pounds from skipping meals. "They live up here, and we live down here. They have more than enough to share."

WALMART ATTEMPTED to give its greedy image a facelift in September by promoting a new program called "Fight Hunger. Spark Change," where Walmart customers were allowed to vote for a food bank to receive a large donation. In other words, food banks were pitted against one another to compete over the money they would receive.

A better name for Walmart's approach would be "Feed Hunger. Fight Change."

If it truly wanted to combat hunger, Walmart could try paying its 1.3 million workers a living wage. But instead, the company keeps their wages so low that many workers are eligible for the government food stamps program. It's estimated that Walmart workers use some $300 million in food stamps each year.

This amounts to a government subsidy to Walmart--it can still rely on a workforce that doesn't all make enough to pay for food. Plus, Walmart is a huge recipient of corporate welfare in another form: tax breaks. According to a new report by American for Tax Fairness, on average, the company avoids $1 billion a year in taxes by exploiting existing federal tax loopholes.

On top of that, Walmart is hoping to lower its taxes by at another $720 million a year--by lobbying Congress to reduce the corporate income tax rate by 10 percentage points, from 35 percent to 25 percent. The company is also "pushing hard to permanently eliminate from U.S. taxation profits that are reportedly earned in other countries--known as a territorial tax system," said Americans for Tax Fairness.

Luna says workers are very aware of Walmart's tax scam:

It's ridiculous that the government still allows them to get tax breaks. Why are there different rules for us paying taxes and Walmart paying taxes? There's a saying, "Con el dinero, baila el perro"--"With money, the dog will dance." For a company like Walmart, anything is possible. You get your way.

THIS IS one of the messages of the workers on the frontlines of the OUR Walmart campaign: The money is there to provide decent wages and working conditions, but Walmart bosses would rather keep it for themselves. They have also joined low-wage workers organizing in other sectors, like fast food, and embraced the $15 an hour as a demand.

Workers at more than 2,200 Walmart stores around the country have signed a petition calling on Walmart to commit to $15 an hour and provide workers with consistent, full-time hours.

The Black Friday protests are part of a string in actions and campaigns that Walmart workers and supporters organized in recent months--the most recent being sit-down strikes at Walmart stores in the Los Angeles area on November 13.

Venanzi Luna was one of the workers who helped lead the sit-ins. She worked at Walmart for eight years and has been an OUR Walmart activist for four. She described the sense of power she and her co-workers felt as they sat down at the Crenshaw store, and then moved on to one in Pico Rivera, where she works, for a sit-in there, too:

Workers were given the choice to take part. Some were still scared, and others said, "I want to be there, I want to make history." People you thought were never going to do it went on strike, and they were part of the first sit-down. That was an amazing thing. Walmart didn't know what to do.

Workers sat down at Crenshaw for two hours--you felt power, you felt nervous, you felt like you were doing something that was history. Powerful. Amazing. No words to describe the feeling that you had when you were there.

Workers chanted, "Stand up, live better. Sit down, live better!" as they sat in the aisles of the store. Customers showed their support for the workers, and some of them even walked out, joining the hundred gathered outside the store to show their support.

That same day, workers turned out to support their coworkers down the Walmart supply chain--at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where independent short-haul truckers staged a one-day strike, their fifth in the last year and a half.

Activism has been the key to Walmart employees winning some recent improvements at work. Earlier this year, Walmart was forced to change its policies for pregnant workers, such as light duty, as a result of protest, including a campaign called "Respect the Bump." This summer, working mothers struck at Walmart stores in 20 states to draw attention to the discrimination they face at work.

In April, Walmart was forced to create a new scheduling system providing workers with the hours they want. But you wouldn't know this was the result of protest to listen to Walmart. "Our associates are the best generators of ideas," company spokesperson Kory Lundberg said of the new Access to Open Hours program. "They've been telling us they want to know what opportunities are there in the store." It would be "inaccurate" to call the program a response to protest, he noted.

As much as Walmart denies it, however, pressure is the only thing that a company like Walmart understands. As Luna explains:

Walmart will say, "We are trying something new," but the reality is that these are changes that we have made. This is what we did. This is why you can pick up open shifts. A lot of things we have done have only made us stronger. And it benefits everyone nationwide if Walmart pays $15 an hour.

Luna is very much aware that this fight isn't just for workers at Walmart but for workers at other companies around the country. If she and her co-workers can win their demands at Walmart, that's something important for workers at other companies who make starting pay that is well below $15 an hour.

Not only do workers who take part in Black Friday protests forfeit the money they would be making that day in order to stand up to Walmart, but they face retaliation from a company that is not hesitant about intimidating and firing its employees. Looking ahead to the Black Friday protest, which will take place at some 1,600 locations, she said:

Every year, we do Black Friday, and it gets bigger every year. We show them that we're willing to lose these hours and go on strike to show Walmart that we have rights. This year is going to be amazing because we have so much support from the community. Last year, they didn't make as much money as they expected. More are willing to go on strike than before.

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