From daily News Line in Britain:
Saturday, 13 October 2012
Walmart strike wave in USA
This week has seen the biggest strike wave of low-paid retail workers at Walmart in the US – the first-ever strike in the 50-year history of the largest private employer in the world.
The strike began last Friday week when about 30 Walmart employees walked off the job for a day at the Pico Rivera store in Los Angeles.
By Tuesday it had spread across the US to stores in at least a dozen cities.
Walmart workers walked off the job in Dallas, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area, Miami, the Washington DC area, Sacramento, Chicago, Orlando and other Los Angeles stores. Workers also went on strike in parts of Kentucky, Missouri and Minnesota.
Even though the workforce is entirely union-free in North America, the strikes are the culmination of a year of organising by OUR Walmart, an organisation of Walmart workers backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) campaign, Making Change At Walmart.
The UFCW says the workers are protesting against company attempts to ‘silence and retaliate against workers for speaking out for improvements on the job’ after long complaining of low pay and a lack of benefits.
Southern California has been a focal point for Walmart worker activism, but it isn’t the only one.
Two weeks ago, OUR Walmart members in Dallas held a hundred-strong rally protesting against Walmart’s wages and benefits.
This week saw them strike with colleagues and community supporters, and outside the Dallas store they held up signs reading, ‘Stand Up, Live Better, Stop Retaliation’ and ‘Stop Trying to Silence Us’.
Colby Harris, 22, who works in the produce department in Lancaster, Texas, said: ‘I make $8.90 an hour and I’ve worked at Walmart for three years.
‘Everyone at my store lives from cheque to cheque and borrows money from each other just to make it through the week.’
In contrast, the six heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton are worth $89.5 billion, or as much as the bottom 41.5 per cent of Americans combined.
Harris said it’s not just the wages that bother him. Walmart harasses and fires workers who join labour groups or complain about company policies, he said. ‘But I’d rather lose my job than be treated like this.’
He added: ‘I’m not being paid for these days. We’re taking off work to protest – obviously there must be something wrong.’
Walmart workers have recently filed more than 20 charges of unfair labour practices across the country with the National Labour Relation Board.
The charges, mostly filed in recent weeks, allege that workers have either been fired or had their hours reduced after activity with OUR Walmart.
Workers also allege that they have been told not to talk to OUR Walmart organisers and that doing so could shut down stores, leaving employees without a job.
One of the charges was filed on behalf of Monique Valesquez, a Pico Rivera Walmart employee who participated in the strike last week.
After becoming active with OUR Walmart, her hours were cut from 30 hours a week to eight.
‘I’m striking because I was retaliated against for speaking out,’ said Valesquez, a single mother of five children.
She said that with eight hours worth of pay, she ‘can’t even pay one bill. It’s very, very hard.’
Her Pico Rivera colleague, department manager Evelin Cruz, said about her decision to join the strike: ‘I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m scared.
‘But I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you.’
Cruz said her store is chronically understaffed: ‘They expect the work to be done, without having the people to do the job.’
Although standing up to their employer has won some modest improvements, it has mainly inspired a wave of illegal retaliation unleashed by the retail giant, which strikers charge is more concerned with suppressing activism than complying with the law.
This retaliation has led many Walmart employees to file Unfair Labour Practice (ULP) charges with the National Labour Relations Board, alleging further punishment of activists.
Photo department worker Victoria Martinez said: ‘Every time I go into work, I get panic attacks . . . I’m always wondering what are they going to try to do to me when I come in.’
‘The bottom line,’ former NLRB Chairwoman Wilma Liebman said, ‘is non-union people, as well as unionised people, have a right to concertedly walk off the job in protest.’
The walk-outs are only the latest in a series of strikes in the Walmart supply chain, all by non-union workers.
Eight guest workers at CJ’s seafood in Louisiana walked off the job in June, alleging violent threats and forced labour.
After initially saying it had investigated the workers’ claims and couldn’t substantiate them, Walmart suspended CJ’s.
Then, in the second week of September, warehouse workers who move Walmart goods went on strike in Mira Loma, California, and in Elwood, Illinois three days later.
Both groups of workers alleged that management had retaliated against employees for protesting abusive conditions.
The West Coast warehouse workers struck for 15 days, and joined a six-day 50-mile march to Los Angeles, before returning to work September 28. Their Midwest counterparts are still on strike.
Last Monday, they were joined by supporters for a 600-strong rally at which 17 people were arrested by police in riot gear for nonviolently blocking the entrance to the major Walmart distribution hub.
Cruz said she believes the warehouse workers’ strikes are ‘what really led us to do something’ .
On Monday in New York, OUR Walmart members expressed total solidarity with the striking warehouse workers.
‘We see what’s happening to them as part of the same process, of the lowering of standards, that’s happening to us,’ said grocery worker Mary Pat Tifft.
The striking store workers make up just a tiny percentage of Walmart’s 1.6 million US employees.
But their strike, and those of their contracted counterparts, signals a new stage in what activists and UFCW backers consider Walmart’s labour wars.
The strike wave also comes as the company faces new challenges on other fronts, including a congressional investigation of its Mexican bribery scandal and the failure of its latest bid to breach New York City limits after outspoken mayoral candidates called the company a ‘bad actor’ for not addressing labour and community relations’ problems.
This month, the city’s largest developer announced an agreement with a union-grocery store at a site that Walmart had hoped would be its first location in New York.
In Los Angeles, mayoral candidates are refusing to accept campaign donations from the deep pockets of Walmart, and in Boston, Walmart was forced to suspend its expansion into the city after facing significant community opposition.
The company is also facing yet another gender discrimination lawsuit on behalf of 100,000 women in California and in Tennessee.
Rampant wage theft and health and safety violations so extreme in the company’s warehousing system have led to an unprecedented $600,000 in fines.
The Department of Labour fined a Walmart seafood supplier for wage and hours violations, and Human Rights Watch has spoken out about the failures of controls in regulating suppliers overseas, including a seafood supplier in Thailand where trafficking and debt bondage were cited.
No wonder then, when asked if the strikes could spread further, Cruz replied: ‘I think it will. I hope it will.’
Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein sheds light on the new surge of Walmart protests: here.