In the pre-dawn chill of Black Friday 2012, a half-dozen yellow school buses pulled up at a South Side Chicago Walmart store, disgorging a small group of striking Walmart workers and nearly 250 supporters.
Along with strikers and allies in 100 other cities around the country, they had come out that day under the aegis of the year-old Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), created to give Walmart workers a vehicle to protest their mistreatment—including low wages, skimpy benefits, erratic scheduling and aggressive management suppression of employees’ voices at work.
“Somewhere, somehow, down the line, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Tyrone Parker, a striking night-shift stocker, at that first Black Friday action.
After Hansen’s retirement last fall, the union’s 55-member executive board elected Secretary-Treasurer Anthony “Marc” Perrone as the next president. Leading up to the vote, Perrone had questioned the amount of money that had been devoted to the Walmart campaign without gaining any new members for the union, whose membership has declined in recent years. Several sources close to the campaign, not named because they are not authorized to release financial information, estimate that the overall cost had been about $7 million to $8 million a year.
In April, four months into Perrone’s tenure, the Washington Postreported rumors of potential cutbacks to OUR Walmart. In These Times’s sources say the union plans to cut the campaign’s budget by as much as 65 percent.
Sources close to the new leadership say no cuts are planned, only realignments, such as spending more money on advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight Walmart’s faults. At the same time, UFCW will try to parlay the Walmart efforts into “a broader retail campaign,” according to new Executive Vice President Stuart Appelbaum, regarded as an ally of Perrone. This probably will encourage more organizing at other retailers to win contracts and dues-paying members.
As Buzzfeed reported in June, the union also removed two directors of the Walmart effort, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, in May. Meanwhile, the board of OUR Walmart—five worker-members and the two directors—has sought and received new funding from two progressive donors, according to the director of a funders’ group to which both belong.
Most key labor leaders, whatever their view of OUR Walmart, are unwilling to talk very much, because they hope to continue to work with UFCW on the Walmart campaigns, if possible.
Although OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 (the Service Employees International Union-backed fast-food workers’ campaign, which has targeted McDonald’s) have been expensive for the unions, they’ve stoked worker and public fervor against two of the mightiest global corporations.
“The union’s biggest accomplishment is the development of OUR Walmart,” says an ally in the campaign who feels that new spirit may be lost in the reshuffling.
How big is too big?
The UFCW largely ignored Walmart when it was a small-town, Southern five-and-dime chain. But as Walmart moved north and west and into groceries, the union had to challenge the mega-retailer to protect its contracts. A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).
UFCW has also tried educating the public about the high costs of Walmart’s low prices. In 2005, both SEIU and UFCW began publicity campaigns about the corporation’s misbehavior (called, respectively, Walmart Watch and Wake Up, Walmart). Walmart Watch revealed a 2005 internal company memo on how Walmart might cut its already low pay and benefits without incurring bad publicity by increasing the number of part-time workers. Such well-aimed, sharp darts wounded the company’s reputation and may have been a factor in declining profits, although customers have also faulted Walmart for badly stocked, disorganized stores, unattractive produce and poor service.
But these campaigns did not yield union members. By failing to organize the retail behemoth, which provides 8.9 percent of jobs in the sector (which in turn employs nearly 1 in 9 U.S. workers), unions lost power to set wage and labor standards. Since 1983, the percentage of retail workers who belong to unions has declined by half—to 4.4 percent.
When Schlademan started work at the UFCW in 2010 on what would become the new Walmart strategy, he tried to learn from workers and organizers in past campaigns, as he explained in an interview with In These Times in December. First, he concluded, the campaign had to break down the barriers isolating workers from each other, both within and among stores. Second, Walmart workers wanted to be “front and center” in the campaigns and in solving problems. Third, workers had to discover the power of collective action, primarily through strikes, which Schlademan called “probably one of the most liberating things labor does. Striking—just [the act of] striking—helps build leaders.”
Over the next three years, OUR Walmart’s key achievement was mobilizing workers to take direct action against the company. OUR Walmart members challenged management at both their workplaces and at shareholder meetings in Bentonville, Ark., often with work stoppages, sit-ins or similar protests. In the process, effective and committed rank-and-file leaders emerged.
The campaign also won praise for its effective use of online organizing. Organizers and members used the web to move workers into reallife collective protests, build small groups of leaders at individual stores, and arrange local and national direct actions. The online connections produced more direct, horizontal relationships between Walmart workers than in most unions, which have a more hierarchical organization.
OUR Walmart said the campaign was just trying to make Walmart a better corporate citizen, not organize a union. Technically that was true (and tactically necessary, given labor law restrictions on picketing employers for long periods). But in spirit, OUR Walmart resembled a strong minority union, without enough votes to win a formal union and collective bargaining, but with other tools that could be used to solve workers’ problems.
The campaign wrung several concessions from Walmart. Workers won a few pilot programs to reduce inconsiderate scheduling, and a worker-led campaign to “Respect the Bump” yielded better pregnancy accommodations. Accompanied by publicity campaigns attacking the company’s stinginess and its owners’ extreme wealth, worker actions undoubtedly helped prompt Walmart’s decision in April to raise its lowest wages to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year.
Hopes for transforming Walmart—and thereby the whole low-wage economy—rose among supporters.
OUR Walmart is “a little IWW-ish,” Schlademan said in December. In their early 20th-century heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World eschewed contracts in favor of direct action at work. In OUR Walmart, Schlademan sees a similar appetite for militant action and a more vigorous involvement in the collective, horizontal conversation.
At the time, Schlademan said, OUR Walmart was preoccupied with securing its right to exist without being attacked all the time: “Walmart must realize OUR Walmart is not going away.”
But sustaining an expensive campaign like OUR Walmart is difficult with voluntary dues of $5 a month per member. Schlademan has since been cut from the UFCW payroll but is still working with OUR Walmart. And rumors of UFCW withdrawing funds have begun circulating, although a network of progressive donors recently pledged money for OUR Walmart to maintain its work.
If UFCW, the organization’s sponsor, cuts back on OUR Walmart, how will managers—and workers—interpret the move?
Critics of the union’s focus on OUR Walmart believe that broadening the agenda to all retail will spread around organizing dollars more effectively, yielding more unionized shops and more dues-paying members. No organizing is easy, but looking beyond Walmart may provide more realistic targets. In New York—the historic stronghold of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (now a department within UFCW)—UFCW Vice President and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has overseen successful organizing of clothing boutique workers, such as clerks at the Swedish-owned “cheap chic” H&M stores.
Victory at such companies will bring new members but will not necessarily transform the retail industry the way success at a major chain like Walmart or Home Depot could.
The union will almost certainly maintain some special focus on Walmart. “Nobody wants to walk away from or abandon effort on Walmart,” says one union staffer, who was not authorized to speak with reporters. But the union’s Walmart project “will be a more media-focused campaign,” relying on print and television ads, says the staffer.
Media buys can be very expensive, however. Forbes reported that UFCW “spent six figures” on a Fourth of July ad blitz portraying Walmart as unpatriotic for stashing $76 billion in 15 foreign tax havens. And if past attacks haven’t altered Walmart’s stance on unions, will more exposés do the trick?
On the other hand, the sweeping victories of the 1930s and 1960s in industries from automobiles to healthcare suggest the value of a sector-wide strategy for retail. But can one union take on a sector with 16 million workers?
It starts with the workers
Stephen Lerner is the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the most successful sector-wide organizing efforts of the past three decades. He argues that, with labor hanging by a thread, most U.S. unions have gone into defense mode—which only occasionally delays further slippage—rather than playing offense using creative, large-scale campaigns.
Though most analysts see the evershifting Walmart campaign as a defensive effort to keep Walmart from driving down labor standards at other, unionized grocery chains, Lerner believes OUR Walmart is an example of a sweeping, innovative effort. “It’s pretty impressive what workers in OUR Walmart have achieved so far,” he says. He notes that strikes have yielded concrete victories and that creative online organizing has allowed workers to help move people into action, not simply to “scream into the void.”
For workers to form a union against the will of an industry or a big company like Walmart requires “an enormous amount of time” to understand the issues, overcome fears, develop leaders, and formulate a “theory of how to beat the company,” which may vary from target to target, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors’ big breakthrough, in a 1988 organizing campaign in Denver, came in part from understanding that targeting building owners, for whom janitorial costs are minuscule, was essential to organizing the small, costsensitive cleaning companies. “There’s not one tactic or secret sauce to take on an entire industry,” he says.
As UFCW revises or expands its organizing mission, it would seem smart to look for ways to apply the strategy and style of work of OUR Walmart—that is, educating and empowering member-organizers and leaders—throughout its retail organizing. That includes recognizing the utility of the internet for real organizing, breaking barriers and building solidarity and expanding open, direct, horizontal lines of communication among members and workplace leaders. It also includes realizing the crucial role of strikes and direct action in building a sense of collective power and communicating with supporters and the public.
OUR Walmart member Tyfani Faulkner, 32, a high school graduate from Sacramento who knew nothing about the labor movement when she took her job, now loves going online to answer questions or solve others’ problems, or to work for legislation or a candidate she favors (most recently, Bernie Sanders). Her “proudest moment,” she says, was participating in a two-hour sit-in at Walmart this past November. OUR Walmart has produced many powerful worker-leaders and vocal progressives like Faulkner who organize effectively—and at no cost.
The emergence of leaders like Faulkner reinforces the urgency of taking seriously Lerner’s key advice, which is as simple as it is often ignored: “You can’t win without the workers.”
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]
We’re calling Walmart out on its misleading public relations push.
Welp, they’re at it again!
Walmart kicks off its annual U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Arkansas on Tuesday, highlighting “progress” in its 10-year commitment to purchase $250 billion in American-made goods. For the second year in a row, the retail giant has unveiled a handy infographic touting the progress its made thus far.
And just like last year, we decided to take their infographic and add some much needed context. See, when you start to dig just a little bit, you find that Walmart’s committment is pretty misleading.
Want more? We’ve included last year’s blog post and infographic below.
From 2014: The web filter at the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) caught a big ol’ piece of chaff this week, in the form of a release from Walmart. America’s largest retailer has announced plans to purchase $250 billion worth of American-made goods over the next decade. It decided to share the good news of its sudden economic patriotism via an infographic, which is heavy on the fancy font but light on context.
So AAM took a stab at filling that context in, via an infographic of its own. Sure, Walmart is spending a big chunk of change on American-made products. But the company regularly moves gigantic gobs of money around, so is it spending any more on America than usual? And where are the rest of the goods on its shelves coming from? Does Walmart deserve a round of applause (that it started itself) for cozying up to the Made in America movement? See below:
This blog was originally posted on American Manufacturing on July 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch. As Digital Media Director, Beth helps spread the word about smart public policies that guide the creation of American manufacturing jobs. In this role, she is tasked with helping grow AAM’s social media presence, implementing online advocacy campaigns and overseeing communications with an active online community of supporters. Prior to joining AAM, Beth was charged with content development, branding and promotion at the nonprofit organization Netcentric Campaigns. She created and edited content such as action alerts, campaign emails, newsletters, guest articles and social media for many Netcentric projects. Beth worked on behalf of multiple clients, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, American Heart Association and Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Beth began her career as a reporter, which included a nearly six year stint at the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. She authored the popular gossip column “Heard on the Hill” and covered key players in the Capitol Hill community, such as the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police. Her work also has appeared in publications including the Orange County Register, Press-Enterprise, TakePart, MomsRising and Almanac of the Unelected. A Golden State native, Beth holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and journalism from the University of Southern California. She lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband and rescue dog. You can follow Beth on Twitter at @ebrotherton.
On the one-year anniversary of the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory in Bangladesh—one small component of the multi-billion dollar global garment industry—labor groups around the world are taking to the streets, chanting “never again.” In Bangladesh, family members of the over 1,100 garment workers killed joined former workers and protesters outside the site of the collapse, while activists in London formed a human chain on the city’s busiest shopping street to urge local retailers to be more transparent about working conditions in their supply chains.
In the year since the collapse, advocates say they have successfully shifted the conversation about responsibility for factory production conditions to the multinational corporations themselves—such as Benetton and Nordstrom, both of which had tags found in the Rana Plaza wreckage. The groups have also begun to facilitate a dialogue around the ways in which corporations profit from low wages and corner-cutting on safety for the production of the cheap, fashionable clothes they peddle.
But while the media may recognize that the responsibility for garment workers belongs to the multinational companies that outsource to them, few corporations have taken part in the concrete steps championed by advocacy groups to help victims. For example, a compensation fund for victims was set up to enable retailers to donate to the impacted workers, but only $15 million—one-third of the $40 million goal—has been raised by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which chairs the fund.
The corporate community’s inaction has left survivors scrambling to make a living without adequate healthcare or wages, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Another round of interviews conducted by ActionAid, a global NGO, interviewed 1,436 survivors and 786 family members of workers who died in the Rana collapse. The study found that two-thirds of them had trouble buying food, and half found it difficult to make rent. Almost three in four hadn’t been able to work, and 76 percent were still receiving medical treatment.
Rabeya Begum was one of the 2,500 workers rescued from the rubble. In December, Begum lost both of her legs due to injuries she sustained in the collapse. But because her legs were removed months after the incident, Begum missed out on the government compensation program meant to provide a guaranteed income to workers who had lost limbs in Rana Plaza. Without a guaranteed income, she has been relying on donations to survive, but says that money will soon be gone as well. “ I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” she told Human Rights Watch.
The ILO’s Convention 121 dictates the compensation due to an injured worker based on their loss of future earnings, as well as pain and suffering. After the Bangladeshi disaster, ILO proposed $40 million in compensation for survivors.
But according to Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the forum, there are no legal mechanisms compelling retailers to pay into the compensation fund. That loophole made attempts to compel multinationals to pay damages for an earlier disaster—a 2012 factory fire in Bangladesh which left over 100 dead—all but futile.
For Rana Plaza workers, the first installment of fund payouts as it stands will be $645 per worker.
(In 2012, the year before the walls of Rana Plaza crumbled, Walmart, one of the largest multinationals that allegedly outsourced to Rana Plaza—a claim the company denied—made $17 billion in profits.)
Aside from material relief, one of the concrete gains that came out of the post-collapse outcry was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement overseen by the ILO and several workers rights groups. The accord sets safety standards and mandates public reporting of independent safety inspections. Along with union signatories, over 150 apparel corporations have signed on to the accord, though major U.S. companies like Gap and Walmart are conspicuous absences.
Though Walmart denies being an “authorized” supplier to Rana, news reports found that one of the factories listed Walmart as a client. The corporation has long been a target of labor groups in the U.S., that call on the company to improve working hours and benefits for associates in its stores, as well as for improved safety conditions in its warehouses.
Wal-mart hit abroad, and at home, with labor unrest
Thirty-some protesters picketed outside of a Walmart Express on Chicago’s North Side yesterday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, stressing that the differences in Walmart’s treatment of its workers in the supply chain are only of severity.
David Fields, 44, was among the group of Chicago-area protestors. Fields says he was fired from his job this month—as a forklift driver at a warehouse that supplies Walmart, half an hour south of the city in Hammond, Ind.— because he spoke out about the need for an adequate fire alarm system in the building. And that safety concern was only the tip of the iceberg, said Fields, who had been working at the warehouse since September. “At some point we all started feeling like modern day slaves,” he said, describing his days working in sub-zero temperatures during the icy polar vortex that hit Chicagoland this past winter. “They didn’t care that people were getting frost-bitten.”
Fields’ complaints carry echoes of those commonly made by workers in supply-chain factories overseas, especially the pressure to always speed up production and continue working in severe climate conditions. Najneen Akter Nazma, a factory worker who survived the Rana disaster—though her husband was killed—said she and her husband had been told about a crack running across the floor near his workstation, but knew they couldn’t take a day off work because it would cost them their monthly salary. And for Fields, a slippery floor in the warehouse, wet after a day of rain—which for his supervisors is no excuse to slow down work—carries with it the constant fear of being injured by the heavy loads he used to work with.
For his part, Fields was able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after he was fired. Garment workers in Bangladesh—who have long labored in unregulated industries—are offered few labor protections.
Feeling the heat, but is it enough?
Foxvog has said it’s clear the garment industry has felt the public pressure to take responsibility for its contract workers overseas, will it be enough to compel corporations to change production practices? A handful of North American industry leaders—including Walmart—created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in response to the disaster, which they say will release regular reports and maintain standards in Bangladesh factories, much in the same way the third-party Bangladesh Accord is intended to. Despite the promises of adequate oversight, only one of the 26 companies in the alliance—Fruit of the Loom—has signed onto the Bangladesh Accord, which has the backing of U.N. groups, unions and advocates.
In a statement on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Walmart stressed that “the safety of workers in our supply chain is very important” to the company. It went on to note that Walmart had made a $3 million contribution to a Bangladeshi humanitarian fund, while also touting its role in the alliance. Advocates want Walmart to instead pay into the ILO-led compensation fund, and sign on to the safety accord, which they argue has more impartial oversight.
Walmart has repeatedly denied its connection safety and workplace issues in its warehouses, and has used plausible deniability in the past to distance itself from its Bangladeshi suppliers. Still, thanks to international pressure—and despite its initial denials of responsibility—Walmart has been forced to publicly address the conditions in Bangladesh, and make minor concessions.
But that strategy hasn’t carried over to the company’s stateside operations. Walmart has claimed it is not responsible for the conditions in the Chicago-area distribution warehouse as workers were employed through a “third party service provider,” essentially proxies the company uses to contract with the warehouses. Only time will tell if the burgeoning movements against Walmart’s labor practices in the U.S. will eventually win comparable victories.
For Foxvog, that means that “victims need compensation,” but also that workers must be afforded the “the right to refuse dangerous work” when they fear the foundations of their building won’t stand, a right denied the workers of Rana Plaza, and with deadly consequences.
About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others.
Will conservative Democrats never learn? Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) is facing a tough re-election battle in Arkansas, which is both a low-income state and the home of Walmart. So what position is he taking when it comes to raising the minimum wage, which would pull many of his constituents out of poverty but require Walmart to pay higher wages? If you guessed “he’d find a way to be mealymouthed and spineless,” give yourself a gold star.
On the one hand, Pryor kinda sorta supports a state ballot initiative that would raise the Arkansas minimum wage to a whopping $8.50 an hour over three years. (The state currently has a $6.25 minimum wage on the books, below the federal level, so that’s the initiative’s starting point.) On the other hand, Pryor opposes raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10:
“I know $10.10 still isn’t a whole lot of money, but I think it’s too much, too fast,” Pryor, who is seeking a third Senate term, said in an interview at the Capitol. “I’m not supportive of that.”
Seriously. It’s not much, but it’s too much for the poors, apparently. That’s $21,000 a year for a full-time worker, enough to get a family of three out of poverty, but leaving them well within food stamp eligibility.
Meanwhile, 52 percent of Arkansas voters support raising the minimum wage to $10 while just 38 percent are opposed, according to a Public Policy Polling poll, with 47 percent saying they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported raising the minimum wage. Maybe that’s why Pryor went way out on a limb to say raising the state minimum wage all the way to $8.50 over three years is “a pretty reasonable approach.” But he should look at another question in that poll: 73 percent agreed with the statement that “Someone who works full-time should be paid enough to keep them out of poverty.” That’s your winning argument, and it points to a wage well above $8.50. Except that apparently Walmart’s money (they’re Pryor’s sixth-largest campaign donor) speaks more loudly—and Pryor doesn’t seem to get that being Walmart’s lapdog won’t make them go to bat for him over a Republican.
This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on February 7, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.
Early this morning, fast food workers in New York, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. launched strikes demanding both a wage increase to $15 an hour—from a median of $8.94—and the right to form unions without employer interference.
Later this week, workers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Flint, Mich., will also go out on strike, expanding the reach of the movement of fast food workers (and, in Chicago, retail workers) that started with protests in New York and Chicago last year and grew into a series of one-day strikes throughout 2013. In Flint and Kansas City, strikes are taking place for the first time; in other cities, strikes will expand to target new franchises.
Organizers anticipate that thousands of fast food workers will join in the strikes, which coincide with heightened public awareness of wage stagnation and economic inequality. Some strikers may stay out longer than a single day.
The fast food strikes are part of a broader movement by low-wage workers for higher pay and union representation that has caught fire over the past year.
This low-wage service and retail worker movement has tapped into a vein of discontent. But it has also created hopes for change through the fledgling campaign’s remarkable success with imaginative tactics.
“I’ve always dreamt about a moment like this,” says Terrance Wise, a 34-year old fast food worker and father of three in Kansas City. “But what am I going to do by myself? There’s strength in numbers. It’s a beautiful thing, a positive thing, that’s going to change this country. … My job should be a good job.”
Although he works long hours at his two part-time jobs—8 years at Burger King (now for $9.35 an hour) and 2 years at Pizza Hut (for $7.45)—and his wife also has a low-wage job as a home healthcare aide, Wise struggles to make ends meet. He recently lost his house to foreclosure and had to move in with relatives.
Overall conditions in the industry have not changed as a result of the movement, but some workers have won improvements. In Chicago, organizers say, workers at some McDonald’s and Macy’s locations received modest pay increases after the April strike. Dock worker Andrew Little, 26, said that managers raised pay from $9 to $11.26 an hour for him and his coworkers after they participated in the Chicago strike.
“I was honestly shocked,” he said. “We told ourselves it wouldn’t happen overnight. My first thought was the strike really did have an effect.” But Little remains focused on his “main goal”: to form a union. “We want both a raise and to sit down with management and talk about how we can better serve the store and the store can better serve us,” he says.
As happy as he is with his raise, he is especially pleased that no striker was fired or disciplined. “That’s the best part,” he said. Like other strikers, he returned to work accompanied by supporters—a dozen community representatives, clergy and organizers—who insisted that he should not suffer any retaliation. Workers have a real fear of being fired, Little says, but that can be prevented “if enough of us all stand up and demand respect.”
Not all employers responded positively, at least not at first. After strikes in St. Louis in May, some participating workers lost hours, pay, shifts or promised transfers, according to Jobs With Justice leader Rev. Martin Rafanan. But Jobs With Justice delegations went to the restaurants and talked with managers, corporate representatives or even, in one case, the corporate general counsel. “All of the cases were resolved in favor of the workers by the well-coordinated responses of community leaders,” he says.
There’s only one documented case of a striker being fired during this year’s wave of fast food job actions: Greg Reynoso, from a Brooklyn Domino’s. Fast Food Forward, the New York branch of the movement, responded by making his employer the first target of the current strike. On Friday, organizers report, 14 of 15 Domino’s delivery drivers did not show for work, effectively shutting down the operation on its busiest night. Meanwhile, roughly 60 supporters, including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), gathered outside the Domino’s to protest Reynoso’s dismissal.
The actions come at a time when issues of inequality and the minimum wage have taken the national stage. President Obama is on tour giving high-profile speeches on economic inequality, and a Hart Research poll shows that 80 percent of the public supports the proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.35 to $10.10 in three steps.
Fast-food workers’ poverty wages were spotlighted last week when everyone, from Stephen Colbert to The Atlantic, made sport of McDonald’s for unintentionally debunking its own claims that it provides a living wage. A model budget McDonald’s created for its workers recommended holding two jobs (which is tricky with fast-food jobs, which require workers to be available on-call) and included nothing for heating, far less for health insurance than the cheapest McDonald’s plan, and other fantasies. Implicitly, the budget showed what strikers know: it’s hard to make ends meet on less than $15 an hour.
As we wait for Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray to decide whether to sign or veto the Large Retailer Accountability Act passed by the city council, business lobby groups are insisting that DC’s push to make big box stores pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour is an isolated occurrence, not a sign of things to come:
“This fight in D.C. is being driven by local D.C. politics more than a national agenda,” David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, told POLITICO.Justin Wilson of the business-funded Center for Union Facts said he believes no national movement will come from the D.C. battle. “I don’t foresee (a national movement) happening,” Wilson said.
Right, and the fight that kept Walmart out of Brooklyn last year was driven by local New York City politics, and the fight to keep Walmart out of Chinatown in Los Angeles is driven by local Los Angeles politics, and the failed effort—passed by the city council and vetoed by then-Mayor Richard Daley—to institute a similar large retailer living wage in Chicago as Walmart was moving in was driven by local Chicago politics. Point being, as Walmart tries to move into cities, the politics are different from its traditional suburban and rural locations. So the whole “just an isolated thing, not going to be replicated anywhere” insistence rings a little hollow.
That’s not to say Walmart doesn’t have the power to push itself into many cities, as it did Chicago. But the opposition is a lot more organized. And with good reason. Trying to move into D.C., Walmart went on a charm offensive, donating millions of dollars to local charities and talking up the great jobs it would allegedly create. But:
[Living wage organizer Mike] Wilson says that activists and community leaders met with Wal-Mart representatives soon after the company announced its intentions to move into D.C., but that it became clear Wal-Mart had no interest in negotiating any kind of binding agreement concerning workers’ wages or benefits. Wal-Mart may have told a group of church leaders it would pay $13 an hour, but on other occasions, the company cited its average pay of $12.78 to activists—a number that made Wilson and others suspicious. That figure, which excludes part-time workers and includes department managers, ishighly disputed.
Walmart can’t be trusted, so Walmart faces a fight. In fact, Walmart drives wages down for workers at other retailers in areas where Walmart stores open, so a $12.50 minimum wage at Walmart and other large retailers in Washington, D.C., would help protect wages at existing smaller stores.
Oddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.
No, not doping.
It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.
Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.
More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.
But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlanticwrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Timewrote.
Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.
Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.
After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Timesinvestigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.
Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Timesfound that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.
A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.
Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Timesinvestigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:
“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”
After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.
Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.
Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.
Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.
More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.
But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.
This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author:Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.
Finally, someone is holding Walmart directly accountable for the abuse of workers in its contracted warehouses. “Recent discovery has established that Walmart bears ultimate responsibility for the violations of state and federal law committed against plaintiff warehouse workers,” said a court document filed in Los Angeles.
“Wal-Mart employs a network of contractors and subcontractors who have habitually broken the law to keep their labor costs low and profit margins high. We believe Wal-Mart knows exactly what is happening and is ultimately responsible for stealing millions of dollars from the low-wage warehouse workers who move Wal-Mart merchandise.”
Corporate Welfare: instead of taking a small partition of their record profits, or slightly cutting CEO pay to help out their workers, Walmart wants YOU, the taxpayer, to pay for its workers’ healthcare. Just one more reason Walmart workers, and the population at large, are standing up to Walmart.
Walmart wants you to think its workers love the store and love their jobs. If that’s the case, why are there unprecedented protests against the mega retailer spanning the country? Why is the store facing a lawsuit from contracted warehouse workers? Since Walmart has given us no real evidence that its workers love the store, maybe we are just supposed to take Walmart’s word for it?
This post was originally posted on Change to Win on Monday, December 3, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: J Lefkowitz: Change to Win is a Strategic Organizing Center which focuses on using its “strength in numbers to reclaim the American Dream.” It’s target is middle class and working class Americans to hold corporations and other large entities in our modern society accountable. You can learn more about Change to Win here.
James Vetato planned to spend Black Friday wearing out shoe leather on a picket line at the Southside Walmart in Paducah, Ky.
“Now I’ll be there Thanksgiving night, too,” Vetato said. “Walmart has announced it will be open at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night, which will prevent a lot of the associates from spending the holiday with their families.”
Vetato, 47, is an organizer with OUR Walmart—Organization United for Respect at Walmart—a national association of current and former Walmart employees, several thousand strong, who will be walking picket lines and striking at dozens of Walmart stores across the country on Turkey Day and Black Friday.
OUR Walmart wants to shine a national spotlight on Walmart’s abuse of its workers, Vetato said. The organization chose the day after Thanksgiving because it is the busiest shopping day of the year.
We are fighting to win respect and improve working conditions for all associates.
Vetato, who worked at the store he will be picketing, hopes OUR Walmart will become a union.
Before I worked at Walmart I wasn’t that big on unions. I didn’t think a union was a bad thing. I just didn’t know anything about unions. Now I think every workplace should be unionized.
According to Vetato, OUR Walmart has about 15 members in historic Paducah, where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers merge. “We’re relatively new so we’re not that big. But our numbers are growing.”
Vetato said the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is providing financial backing and other valuable help to OUR Walmart, some of whose members, including Vetato, have demonstrated at Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
AFL-CIO-affiliated unions support Vetato’s group, too. “We stand in solidarity with the Walmart workers and will be glad to help them in any way we can,” said United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9447 President Jeff Wiggins, who is also president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council.
Vetato said fear is keeping more Walmart workers from joining OUR Walmart.
There aren’t that many jobs around here. But Walmart has pushed people so hard, they have decided enough is enough and they are not going to take it anymore.
Vetato said management drove him to quit the Southside store after two years.
It all started after I was speaking with an associate in the back room who was complaining about the way things were. I said things would be better if everybody stood together and took our problems to management.
A manager overheard the conversation, according to Vetato. “He said he was sick of my kind coming into the store and undermining what he was doing. He doubled my workload and cut my hours.”
But what really made me say ‘enough is enough’ was when he made some inappropriate comments about my 15-year-old daughter. I complained to the store manager and he told me he didn’t have time to micromanage the store. James Vetato and son.
Vetato has worked at odd jobs since he left Walmart in October 2011. “When I apply some place and say I worked at Walmart and they call Walmart, I suspect Walmart won’t give me a good recommendation,” he said.
Meanwhile, the OUR Walmart actions began in October in Southern California when, for the first time ever, employees went on a one-day strike. Said Vetato:
Across the country, Walmart employees have filed many, many unfair labor practice charges against the company because of the way the company is treating them. Walmart refuses to address our concerns, even those that would help the company. If you speak out, you face retaliation.
Walmart, which is fiercely anti-union, has put out training videos aimed at discrediting OUR Walmart, according to Vetato. “They say all we are trying to do is take your money and get your personal information and cause trouble.”
Vetato said Walmart’s current business model includes canceling profit sharing for associates, increasing their health care costs by 36% and reducing their hours.
They are really trying to push full-time and older employees out the door and replace them with younger and part-time people.
This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on November 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is a recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.
Early on Friday, three dozen non-union workers at a large Walmart warehouse near Riverside, Calif., ended a 15-day walkout protesting poor working conditions. But outside of Chicago, another group of Wal-Mart warehouse workers continue to strike and have called for hundreds of supporters to join them in non-violent civil disobedience at a rally at the huge facility on Monday.
The southern California workers, most of whom earn minimum wage, cited family financial problems as one reason for discontinuing the strike. The decision was made upon their return from a six-day, 50-mile “WalMarch” to downtown Los Angeles to call attention to appalling safety problems and working conditions in the vast Inland Empire warehouse industry.
The spontaneous California work stoppage helped inspire the Sept. 15 walkout by 30-plus workers at Wal-Mart’s huge Elwood, Ill. warehouse. The Illinois workers were angry about poor working conditions and apparent retaliation by their employer, a Wal-Mart contractor, against four workers who filed a lawsuit over subminimum wages.
The lawsuit is the sixth filed by Elwood workers in three years. Three prior suits have resulted in settlement payments to workers. The latest claims that Roadlink Workforce Solutions–one of four subcontractors providing long-term “temporary” workers to Schneider Logistics, which operates the warehouse for Wal-Mart–frequently failed to pay overtime and minimum wage, in violation of federal, state and local laws.
Workers at both the Illinois and California warehouses have similar complaints: wage theft, harassment, safety hazards, being denied breaks, and working in extreme temperatures with inadequate water. California’s workplace safety agency, CalOSHA, is investigating the Southern California warehouse in response to a complaint filed by workers about working conditions and excessive heat. It may soon pursue an additional complaint about repetitive motion injuries.
Workers have been less successful in getting their complaints heard directly by Wal-Mart. They face a complex structure of authority and responsibility created by the company, with layers of contractors between workers and Wal-Mart management. In response, workers have filed numerous requests with Wal-Mart to enforce its code of conduct throughout its supply chain.
About ten days ago Walmart told some news outlets, including Huffington Post, that it would review contracts and look into third-party monitoring of all contractors, a small step towards taking responsibility. But it did not sign any agreement with either group of strikers.
And when the Southern California workers returned to the job Friday–receiving high-fives from non-striking workers–they found that some of the safety problems remained. The workers alerted management, which shut down the unsafe areas of the warehouse.
“They feel they have a stronger voice now over working conditions,” says Elizabeth Brennan, spokesperson for Warehouse Workers United, a project of Change To Win, a union federation trying to improve work for the 85,000 people employed at warehouses in southern California. While they feel they’ve won a big victory–“a step forward, not an end-all solution,” Brennan says–they also anticipate possible retaliation, even though it would be illegal.
That’s what the Illinois workers say happened after they filed a wage theft suit on Sept. 13 against Wal-Mart with the assistance of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE). Plaintiff Philip Bailey says that management fired him and the other named plaintiffs the next day, then changed its mind and suspended them without pay.
After losing his job in Detroit last year, Bailey came to the Chicago area to seek work because there were jobs available in the warehouses. This is partly due to very high turnover rates, which can pose a barrier to organizing. In the end, he says, it was a group of workers who had managed to last a half year or more who formed the core of the protest action.
“What we have in common is we’re pretty marginalized and desperate,” Bailey says. “People are fed up in there and not willing to give up without a fight. The prospect of working these low-paying jobs for long hours became scarier than risking losing the job to improve it. People realized we won’t get anything until we stand together.”
In September, about 40 workers signed a petition “about unsafe equipment, extreme heat, and taking away breaks, making [shifts last] 6 or 7 hours,” says veteran warehouse worker Ted Ledwa. On Saturday, after Bailey and some other workers were fired and then suspended, a group of the petitioners tried to take their demands to management.
“We had to walk around the entire warehouse to collect everyone,” Ledwa says, “and all the time management was saying we were trespassing and had to leave. All we wanted to do was present the petition to management. As we came around the corner, managers with these riding forklifts cut our group in half, but we continued to walk. They told us we were going to be escorted out of the building by the police. They refused to take the petition. My manager said that we don’t want to mess with him. We said we didn’t want to mess with anybody. We just wanted someone to take the petition and hear our grievances. Their answer is the police are on their way. You’re going to be arrested.”
Managers were reportedly erratic in their response. Initially, Ledwa says, the petitioners were also fired, but managers later called to say they had been suspended. Now, both the suspended plaintiffs and the suspended petitioners, joined by a few other workers, are striking together over unfair labor practices, including discharge for lawful collective action. Ledwa believes those who kept working were sympathetic but afraid of losing their $10-an-hour jobs.
“Management uses threats and intimidation as part of their daily routine,” he says. “I’ve worked at several warehouses, and I’ve never seen it so bad. They have no respect for the people. They say if you can’t do the job, we’ll get someone else. There’s a constant threat. They’re always trying to pit people against each other, to create animosity among their workers. I’m tired of it.”
So for now the strike continues, picking up support, such as from Chicago teachers, recently on strike themselves. Many public-school teachers see a common enemy in the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable group run by Wal-Mart’s founding family, which promotes school privatization.
And the warehouse strike is a worrisome development for Wal-Mart, a company that “has made distribution the heart of its business,” as Nelson Lichtenstein writes inThe Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. Wal-Mart’s super-efficient system of delivering goods only as needed, while stores carry minimal inventory, keeps costs low. It relies on sophisticated management and technology but also on brute, crude exploitation of workers. But this system is vulnerable to disruption, a threat especially potent now as big retailers prepare for the lucrative Christmas selling season.
Strikers at these two warehouses face both a big antagonist and big barriers to unionizing: Under current labor law, it’s perfectly legal for Wal-Mart to simply stop using any contractor whose employees join a union. As a result, workers have instead focused on getting Wal-Mart to enforce its own standards upon its contractors. But the strikers’ example could plant the idea in the minds of other warehouse workers that collective action can bring power and improvements at work. And that seed could grow into a movement for change among workers who need it badly.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]