Walmart workers aim to 'reclaim' Black Friday

Historic struggle to organize retail and warehouse workers in the US

Following a series of unprecedented strikes by Walmart workers across the United States, a contingent of workers and their supporters showed up at Walmart’s corporate headquarters on Oct. 10, to demand an end to the company's efforts to silence and retaliate against workers speaking out for job improvements.

The group, which included national leaders from civil rights, immigrant rights, women’s rights and religious organizations, as well as union and community leaders, announced that their organizations were committed to “reclaiming” Black Friday for Walmart workers and their communities. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S., is traditionally the beginning of the holiday shopping season. At the same time, workers, community leaders and elected officials joined together for protests at more than 200 Walmart stores across the country.

“If Walmart wants workers fully committed to the stores on Black Friday, Walmart needs to do more for us the rest of the days of the year,” said Colby Harris, who makes $8.90 an hour after three years working at a Walmart in Lancaster, Texas. Harris is a member of OUR Walmart, a labor group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, calling for changes at the company. In just one year, OUR Walmart has grown from an organization of 100 workers to a national organization of thousands of employees from 43 states.

Walmart workers walked off the job Oct 9 and 10 in more than a dozen cities, including Chicago, Dallas, the Washington, D.C. area, Miami, Orlando, Seattle and in many of California’s major cities.

Striking workers and national leaders committed to engaging in a wide range of activities on Black Friday, including rallies, flash mobs, direct action and other efforts to inform customers about the illegal actions that Walmart has been taking against its workers.

A giant retail monopoly

Walmart, with revenue of $444 billion and net profit of $15.7 billion in 2011, is the largest retailer in the world and the biggest private employer in the United States. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute reported that in 2010 the Walton family, heirs to the founder of Walmart, was estimated to have a total net worth of $89.5 billion. Four of the Walton heirs rank in the top 10 on Forbes' list of the richest people in America.

The wealth of the Walton family is equal to the total net worth of the bottom 41.5 percent of Americans. That is, this one family holds more wealth than 48.8 million U.S. households combined.

The wealth of Walmart and the Waltons was not a product of the hard work of the Waltons themselves, or the company's rich shareholders. It was wealth accumulated through the mass exploitation of Walmart’s workers, as well as workers across the globe who produce the goods sold in the giant retailer's stores for an incredibly low wage.

Walmart has repeatedly been charged for its unfair wage practices, and there have been dozens of wage and hour suits in which employees from stores across the country accused managers and Walmart of forcing employees to work unpaid off the clock, erasing hours from time cards and preventing workers from taking lunch and other breaks that were promised by the company or guaranteed by state laws. In 2008, Walmart had to pay up to $640 million in a legal settlement over wage violations.

Efforts to unionize Walmart workers have been ongoing for the past decade, but these efforts have been ruthlessly resisted, and unionization was made nearly impossible due to Walmart’s unremitting anti-union policies. The retail giant’s response to attempts at unionization within its stores and warehouses has included mass firings, anti-union propaganda and unlawful intimidation tactics.

The only successful effort to unionize a U.S. Walmart occurred in 2000 when employees were able to organize in a Walmart Superstore in Jacksonville, Texas. The 10 workers who led the effort were meat cutters in the chain’s grocery department, who after 7 votes in favor to 3 votes opposed, successfully joined with Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. It was a victory for the workers against unacceptable working conditions and for better wages and benefits, and it was an important step toward organization of Walmart’s 2.2 million employees worldwide.

Two weeks after this victory, Walmart released a statement saying that it was phasing out all meat-cutting departments in its 700 stores across the country, including the store in Jacksonville. “This decision was in no way related to the Jacksonville situation,” a Walmart spokeswoman explained, although it is clear that the closures were a tactic by company bosses to deal a death blow to unionizing efforts in Jacksonville. It sent a message to Walmart workers in every state—there are no unions here.

Since then, Walmart has been fighting union efforts tooth and nail in an effort to maintain its high profit margins at the expense of its workers, and defeat union efforts when they are discovered. The more recent actions taken by Walmart workers are the result of years of struggle against coercion and intimidation by the company and the valiant efforts of workers and union organizers to stand up to Walmart and its unjust practices.

Retail workers strike

On Oct. 5, warehouse workers from a Pico Rivera Walmart in Los Angeles made history when they walked off the job and organized the first successful work stoppage in Walmart’s 50-year history. Workers from eight other Walmart stores in California also coordinated actions to protest the poor working conditions and low wages at Walmart.

Over 200 workers and supporters protested outside the Pico Rivera Walmart store while chanting and carrying signs that said, "On Strike for the Freedom to Speak Out" and "Walmart Strike against Retaliation." The strike was coordinated by OUR Walmart.

Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogelman tried to diminish the significance of the strike by saying that it was simply a publicity stunt, and by claiming that only a handful of workers had walked off the job. Nonetheless, the importance of a work stoppage in one of the world’s largest retail chains set the stage for a dramatic upsurge in the labor movement, and is an important development in the consciousness of workers, both union and nonunion.

In the past few weeks since the upsurge against Walmart began, the company has responded with harsh union-busting tactics. Over 20 charges of unfair labor practices have been filed across the country, with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Walmart of cutting the hours of, and even firing, workers who have been active with OUR Walmart. Workers also report that they have been told not to talk to organizers from OUR Walmart and that doing so could shut down stores and trigger layoffs.

Warehouse workers strike

In September, a group of warehouse workers in Mira Loma, Calif., went on strike to protest unsafe working conditions in company warehouses where they move goods bound for different Walmart stores. The workers walked off the job on Sept. 12 in response to being forced to work in freight containers that became dangerously hot in the summer heat, while having no access to clean drinking water. Workers were regularly forced to work in 120-degree heat without fans, without regular breaks, and with inadequate equipment that frequently put them at risk of injury and created health issues.

The workers and the labor group Warehouse Workers United organized a six-day, 50-mile march to draw attention to these poor working conditions. Dozens of workers walked out of the Mira Loma warehouse and were joined by workers from other southern California warehouses. About 50 workers each day marched the route taken by the trucks that carry Walmart goods from Riverside, Calif., to downtown Los Angeles. They slept each night during the march on church floors and relied on meals from supporters. The warehouse workers led an unprecedented and heroic 15-day strike.

In Illinois, warehouse workers who worked under the same unsafe conditions and were inspired by the workers on the West Coast also walked off the job. Both the Illinois and California facilities handle products headed to Walmart stores throughout the country. Although none of the workers are directly employed by Walmart, they work for a temp company that Walmart frequently utilizes.

These Illinois workers brought a list of grievances to management, demanding a living wage and regular hours. The supervisors suspended that group of workers, and the workers then went on strike on Sept. 15. "They retaliated against us for delivering the petition," said Phillip Bailey, a warehouse worker in Elwood, Ill. "People are sick of taking it, the constant speed-ups, never knowing when you'll go home from work. ... My major complaint is we don't know when we're going to leave."

Conditions in Illinois were similar to conditions in California, including no air conditioning or fans, inadequate access to water and broken equipment.

Like the retail strikers in California, warehouse workers have faced retaliation from Walmart, including illegal wage violations, threats from supervisors and denial of rest breaks.

On Oct. 1, hundreds of strikers and supporters along with Warehouse Workers For Justice—an organization launched and supported by the United Electrical Workers to help fight for the demands of the Illinois warehouse workers—shut down the giant Walmart warehouse in Elwood, which is a key distribution center. The strikers were met with police in riot gear, which were called in by Walmart management. During the rally, 17 people sat and blocked an entrance to the warehouse, and police responded by arresting and handcuffing the peaceful protesters as strikers chanted, “We shall not be moved.”

The Elwood warehouse workers announced Oct. 6 that they had won their key demand, reinstatement of all who were fired or suspended for on-the-job organizing, along with full back pay for everyone who participated in the three-week strike.

"I think there's been a hit in Walmart's armor," said Phil Bailey, one of the strikers who marched triumphantly back into the warehouse in matching Warehouse Workers for Justice T-shirts. "There's been this expectation that they can't be damaged at all. Not true!" (Truthout, Oct. 14)

The stakes are high

The strikes breaking out all over the country are a product of decades of exploitation, unlivable wages, intimidation and disenfranchisement of workers by Walmart in its constant effort to undercut its competitors. Walmart, as a capitalist corporation, is forced to roll back workers’ rights in order to maintain its ever-increasing profits. Walmart’s anti-union practices are its primary tool in keeping workers divided and too scared to fight for rights that should be guaranteed to all workers—health care, job stability and safety, and a living wage.

The struggle that Walmart workers are waging now is important for all workers; we all have a stake in the outcome. The historic struggle that is being waged deserves our full support. Victory to the Walmart workers!

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