In 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.
Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by theOrganization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.
Linda Haluska and Lashanda Myrick are two of those mothers, both tired of struggling to support their children on what Walmart pays. “We are Walmart moms; we’re not some political category,” said Haluska, who’s worked at the Glenwood, Illinois store for 8 years, on the call. “We’re real people who are struggling to create happy stable homes for our kids.” Walmart moms, in other words, want politicians and pundits to listen to what they really need, not pander to their perceived political biases.
Bethany Moreton, author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart,noted in a 2010 piece that Walmart itself worked to create and maintain the “Walmart Mom” identity. In her book, Moreton points out that the company’s supposed commitment to “family values,” which it expresses in both its marketing and its internal messaging, came directly from its early employees, many of them wives and mothers who’d never worked outside the home before. These early “Walmart Moms” accepted low wages for service work that they understood as part of a Christian service ethic. Caring for customers, caring for coworkers, and caring for one’s family all went together. Yet in 2014 America, the company’s faced repeated charges that it discriminates against the women it employs and retaliates against workers who dare to speak out about their treatment on the job.
Myrick, who plans on striking in addition to traveling from her home in Denver, Colorado to Bentonville to deliver her message at the shareholders’ meeting, has had enough of the company’s pretense of caring. She has two children—an 18-year-old son who graduates from high school next Tuesday, and a 12-year-old daughter—and, she tells In These Times, her meager paycheck forces her to make impossible decisions about priorities.
“A parent shouldn’t have to make a choice of who’s going to be able to get shoes this week and who’s not going to be able to get shoes this week,” she says. “I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in, so I don’t want to show them that I’m a hypocrite by not standing up for something that I believe in. [I'm] showing them that I believe in this and I’m not worried about retaliation, I’m not worried about anything to come my way.”
The tipping point for her came this November, when one of her coworkers sent her an email showing pictures of the food drive at a Canton, Ohio Walmart. Bins were set out at the store asking for workers to “Please donate food … so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Myrick says, “My thought was, ‘Why would we hold a food drive for our employees when clearly [Walmart has] enough money to make sure all its employees will have a decent Thanksgiving?’ That right there really touched my heart and made me say, ‘I need to stand up, because this doesn’t make sense for us to be working for a billion-dollar company and we can’t even feed our families.'”
Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, noted to me in a recent interview that Walmart’s caring culture has, in the past, helped to insulate its workers from its low-wage regime, as they helped to support each other when money became tight. In recent years, however, that protection has slowly eroded. When the company began, after all, many of its workers were married to someone working full-time; the old norms of gendered work meant that women were not expected to be breadwinners, and jobs that were done by women paid less overall. Those jobs also tend to require skills, emotional and interpersonal, which women are usually socialized to possess but are not considered “hard skills” warranting better wages. Now, though, the company is not only the nation’s largest employer of women but its largest private employer, period. That means a whole lot more people are depending on those low-wage jobs to support their families—while, Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work noted on Thursday’s call, our work-family policies are still “set in a Mad Men era.”
That means more and more workers are starting to doubt that Walmart shares their values, after all. Featherstone said that during interviews for her book, which documents the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit, plaintiff Edith Arana told her that “Walmart is like a bad boyfriend. They tell you exactly what you want to hear and that’s how you get caught up, and you just keep coming back.” Just the willingness of women to file a lawsuit against the company for sex discrimination, Featherstone said, was a huge step forward—and the strikes, which began in 2012, surprised the country.
The company made a few changes in the past year, as strikes and protests have continued to buffet it. After worker-shareholders introduced a proposal to change the company’s policy toward pregnant workers, Walmart issued a new one this March, saying that pregnant employees “may be eligible for reasonable accommodation” if they have a temporary disability caused by their pregnancy. Women’s groups and workers said that the company’s earlier policy, which did not allow for such accommodation, violated federal law. The corporation also recently determined that workers can search for available shifts in order to pick up more hours.
But, Haluska says, those changes aren’t enough. She and the other members of OUR Walmart are demanding that the company pay its workers at least $25,000 a year, create full-time jobs and stop its retaliation against employees who go on strike or speak up at work. In addition, activists are building a campaign asking shareholders to vote against Rob Walton, scion of the billionaire family that founded the company, as chairman of the board. Instead, their resolution, which will be introduced and backed by union funds, calls for an independent chair.
It’s going to take a lot of people standing up to fight, but Myrick does believe that Walmart will eventually change when they realize OUR Walmart is not going to back down.
When asked what she would say if, on her trip to Bentonville, she got a chance to sit down with new Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, famously a former hourly associate himself, Myrick responds, “I would ask him where his morals are.”
About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.
Walmart’s habit of making pregnant women choose between their paychecks and their health by denying them light duty got the retail giant enough bad publicity to spur a change in policy. The new policy leaves Walmart a whole lot of wiggle room to continue putting pregnant women in difficult positions, but it’s an improvement. However, Elizabeth Stoker wonders why Walmartisn’t giving pregnant women the same moral standing it gives veterans, who the company is making a big push to hire:
There’s no material reason veterans make better candidates for employment at Wal-Mart than any other candidate, especially for the low-skilled labor being performed on the floor of retail shops. And yet Wal-Mart’s commitment to veterans doesn’t seem entirely out of line, as veterans are seen as people with a different moral standing than others: They have contributed something of value, and therefore are valued.Wal-Mart notably doesn’t categorize pregnant women in that same class of morally valuable person. Benefits and accommodations in work are not offered to pregnant women insofar as they are pregnant, but only insofar as they are disabled in a medical sense by the effects of pregnancy. In other words, pregnancy has simply been subsumed under the preexisting criteria of disability rather than granted its own category of consideration. [...]
After all, pregnant women are at the final analysis socially valuable and morally distinct as a category of person. They ensure the ongoing life of society, and do so at personal cost: sometimes great, sometimes minor. If Wal-Mart is willing to recognize the moral significance of veterans in those terms, why not pregnant women?
The answer to the question is “because there isn’t as much public pressure and Walmart doesn’t do anything for workers without public pressure.” Besides, all it’s actually doing for veterans is hiring some of them to crappy Walmart jobs and giving some money to veterans’ programs to make itself look good. There’s no reason to believe veterans won’t be treated as badly as any other Walmart worker.Whatever your reasoning, though, pregnant women deserve stronger workplace protections than they currently have. It shouldn’t take bad publicity to get businesses to offer women light duty when they have a doctor’s note saying they need it, and policies offering accommodation shouldn’t have as much wiggle room as Walmart’s does. For that matter, women shouldn’t have to depend on having a decent boss to be able to keep working safely through pregnancy. That should be a matter of the law. Instead, pregnant women now face discrimination and Republicans are predictably standing in the way of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would strengthen protections for all pregnant women, not just the ones whose employers have gotten bad press.
This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 23, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.
To make it sound less problematic that its stores are opening at 6 pm on Thanksgiving, Walmart has been telling anyone who’ll listen that it’s giving “an extra day’s pay” to those working the holiday. Awesome! Now tell me what you mean by “day.”
No, silly, Walmart doesn’t mean everyone who works Thanksgiving gets eight hours of extra pay. They get the average of the hours they’ve worked over the previous two weeks. And that’s where some Walmart workers say the problems lie:
Gertz and other Wal-Mart workers say their hours are cut prior to the holidays, so their average daily wage also goes down.Last year, Gertz’s hours were cut by five hours a week before the holiday. Her hours were also cut in the weeks after the holiday, which bit into her paychecks further. She said some associates in her store had their hours slashed from 40 per week to 24 in the weeks after.
Raise your hand if this sounds like something Walmart wouldn’t do. [A handful of Walmart spokespeople raise their hands, alone.] Because that’s Walmart: consistently adding the insult of pretending they’re really generous to the injury of poverty wages and poor treatment. Not unlike pretending it’s a kind, caring thing to hold a food drive for their workers who can’t afford Thanksgiving dinner on Walmart pay.
Last month, Walmart CEO Bill Simon revealed rather cluelessly that the vast majority of Walmart workers, as many as 825,000 in the United States, earn less than $25,000 a year. The sum is so low the average worker for the country’s biggest employer is struggling to make ends meet. By matching its low prices with insultingly low wages, Walmart forces taxpayers to subsidize its workforce through social safety net programs.
Making Change at Walmart is running a new series that highlights how some of the retailer’s employees are scraping by on Walmart wages. Here are three of the stories they have shared so far:
Anthony Goytia: The 31-year-old father of three makes about $12,000 a year and relies upon MediCal and food stamps. Some of his teeth were removed because he couldn’t afford the dental work to save them. “I don’t need cable or a big house, but I shouldn’t have to resort to selling my plasma and participating in medical trials to be able to feed my kids,” Goytia said. “I have to live payday loan to payday loan.”
Patricia Locks: A 48-year-old single mother, who makes $19,000 a year, relies on low-income housing, food banks and food stamps to get by. She recently was forced to file for bankruptcy. “It’s depressing and scary. No one who works for one of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies should have to live like this,” said Locks. “I don’t think it’s asking too much to earn enough so I don’t have to rely on food banks and other assistance to survive. And that’s why I am going to keep fighting, because I want a better life for me and my daughter.”
John Paul Ashton: The 31-year-old father of two makes $20,000 a year and also relies upon food stamps and food banks. He walks 45 minutes to work with shoes that have holes in them. “When I first started at Walmart, I was told that it was a place where I could grow and have opportunities. I soon discovered that was not the case,” said Ashton. “People take being able to buy lunch for granted. I don’t need a fancy job, but what I do need is a job that allows me to provide for my family, speak up about working conditions and needing better wages without fear of retaliation, and hopefully have more than $2 in my bank account after I pay my bills.”’
More stories of Walmart workers scraping by on less than $25,000 per year are scheduled to be released every week at MakingChangeAtWalmart.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 1, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.
The strike came after protests in 15 different cities in September against the country’s largest private employer. But while those included rallies and pickets in protest of alleged firings of striking workers, they did not include workers who were on strike. Friday’s action was the first work stoppage since June. While past actions were organized by OUR Walmart and supported by unions, this appeared to be independently organized.
A recent survey found that over half of Walmart locations are only hiring temporary workers, not full-time positions. Meanwhile, while the company claims full-time workers make $12.78 an hour on average, another report saysthe average worker makes $8.81, 28 percent of the pay at other large retailers. Its workers make so little that they have to rely on public benefits to get by, with workers at a single location consuming around $1 million worth in food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs. The company has also stood staunchly against living wage bills in multiple cities, with the latest victory in Washington, DC, where after it threatened to pull plans to open stores Mayor Vince Gray (D)vetoed a bill.
Perpetually low wages aren’t unique to the retail sector, and they have also sparked widespread protests and strikes in the fast food industry, which have spread to nearly 60 cities.
This article was originally printed in ThinkProgress on October 21, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman.
Would a higher minimum wage be good for business at Walmart? Many experts say so—after all, a higher minimum wage would give many Walmart customers a little more disposable incometo spend at the store:
David Cooper, an economic analyst with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, agrees with Demos’s Ruetschlin that the sluggish economic recovery means a boost in the minimum wage could push low-income workers to spend more, and in many cases they’d spend that money at low-priced outlets like Walmart.“If suddenly all these low-wage workers have more income, they are likely to spend that money right away,” Cooper said. “If these retailers want strong, stable sustainable growth in the U.S. economy, then they should also want strong, stable increases in wages to their employees.” [...]
The data linking an increase in wages to a rise in consumer spending — particularly at a specific retail outlet — is a bit thin, but there’s “very strong anecdotal evidence in support of that claim,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
Walmart definitely knows that when its customers don’t have money, business suffers; the company’s chief financial officer recently said, to explain a drop in U.S. sales, that “The consumer doesn’t quite have the discretionary income, or they’re hesitant to spend what they do have.” And in fact, in the past, when the minimum wage has gotten too far below the poverty line, a Walmart CEO has explicitly said that was a problem: “The U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has not been raised in nearly a decade, and we believe it is out of date with the times … Our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between paychecks.”
A yacht store is unlikely to see much of a boost from an increase in the minimum wage, in other words, but Walmart, where people go for cheap, basic necessities, will do better. Walmart’s opposition to paying an actual living wage, one that doesn’t force workers to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, is well known. But if Congress doesn’t act and raise the minimum wage, we might get back to a point where Walmart admits it would benefit from an increase. Which would, more than anything, be a sign of how embarrassingly bad Congress is—can you imagine lagging behind Walmart on wage issues?
Beginning shortly after the early June strike by around 100 Walmart workers, 20 of the strikers were fired and another 50 were disciplined in retaliation; Walmart basically treated their absences as if they’d been playing hooky rather than engaging in legally protected concerted activity. Now, in a protest against that retaliation, 9 former and one current Walmart workers and two allies have been arrested in planned acts of civil disobedience outside a Washington, D.C., Walmart office Thursday afternoon. The workers are setting a deadline of Labor Day for Walmart to reinstate fired workers and raise wages or face an escalation of worker activism.
Walmart wants to turn this into an argument about labor law, claiming that the workers’ actions constitute “intermittent strikes” that aren’t protected by law. However, Josh Eidelson reports:
Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said, “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”
By turning this into a dispute about the specifics of labor law, Walmart can both drag things out for months or years before potentially being forced to reinstate the workers and can try to shift the conversation from Walmart’s own rampant abuse of workers and damage to the economy. They’d like to shift the conversation from the workers’ voices, while letting workers who haven’t yet joined the protests and strikes know the cost of doing so:
Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nationthat his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”
These efforts to change the subject and silence workers are why it’s important to hear what the workers had to say at Thursday’s protest:
Jovani ‘Virtually impossible to go to school with #walmart schedules. We should all be able to pursue our dreams’ #walmartstrikers
Pam from CA ‘I am here taking a stand for every Associate too afraid to speak out.’ #walmartstrikers
Lucas, gay, out and proud, faced discrimination at #walmart and was fired for speaking out. ‘Today I take a stand.’
Whenever communities, lawmakers or activists question or criticize Walmart for the way it treats workers—the low-pay, the stores’ impact on the communities—the retail giant pulls out a well-worn script with a simple message, “Walmart creates jobs and if there’s one thing this economy needs, it’s more jobs.”
Setting aside the quality of the jobs for another day, is Walmart telling the truth? Sure doesn’t look like it, according to Salon’s Kathleen Geier, who matches Walmart’s claims against in-depth research from universities, economists, government studies and other sources. Here’s what she finds:
Contrary to Walmart’s self-glorifying mythology, the retailer is anything but a job creator—in fact, it is a huge job killer. Not only that, destroying jobs is an essential component of Walmart’s anti-worker business model.
Using data from more than 3,000 counties, [the] results show that when a Walmart store opens, it kills an average 150 retail jobs at the county level, with each Walmart worker replacing about 1.4 retail workers. These results are robust under a variety of models and tests.
A 2009 study by Loyola University found that the opening of a Chicago Walmart store was “a wash,” destroying as many jobs as it created. According to the report, “There is no evidence that Wal-Mart sparked any significant net growth in economic activity or employment in the area.” Says Geier:
In short, when Walmart comes to town, it doesn’t “create” anything. All it does is put mom-and-pop stores out of business.
Walmart’s job-killing spree doesn’t stop at the city limits. The remains of once good jobs are scattered throughout Walmart’s entire supply chain. Its cut-throat drive for lower prices, writes Geier, squeezes suppliers to deliver goods at the lowest possible prices and that means cutting labor costs—aka jobs.
Walmart’s using that specious jobs argument in its fight to block a living wage law in Washington,D.C. Find out more here.
Article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW on August 6, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety
Walmart, the country’s largest private employer and huge wielder of political influence, is taking on their greatest challenge yet: A college junior writing an op-ed in her student newspaper.
Georgetown University student Erin Riordan wrote a piece for The Hoya, the school’s student-run newspaper, in support of the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would raise the minimum wage for big-box retail employees to $12.50 an hour.
To deal with this threat, Walmart dispatched Steven Restivo, a senior director of communications at Walmart, to write a responding op-ed.
Erin’s piece on July 24 pointed out the reasons that many of us want the LRAA to become law: to establish a living wage for notoriously underpaid retail workers in one of the most expensive cities in the world. She also points to Walmart’s enormous revenue and their previous promises to pay $13 an hour. Perhaps, most importantly, she points to the LRAA’s ability to lift Washington, D.C., families out of poverty.
The current minimum wage creates a cycle of poverty where even full-time workers struggle to make a living, then transferring the burden of paying for necessities to the taxpayer.
In his July 29 response, Restivo, who we’ll mention again is a senior director of communications at Walmart responding to a student op-ed in a college newspaper, says LRAA is bad policy because it doesn’t apply to all residents.
Workers at places like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Exxon Mobil, Giant, Applebee’s, Safeway, Nike, Banana Republic, Five Guys and the Apple Store and hundreds more businesses like them aren’t covered by the LRAA. The legislation does not create a level playing field and imposes arbitrary costs on only a handful of businesses in D.C…that’s bad public policy.
Restivo is referring in part to the section of the LRAA that states, “employees are not barred from entering into a written valid collective bargaining agreement waiving provisions of this act if such waiver is set forth in clear and unambiguous terms.”He and other Walmart spokespeople have said this is a “discriminatory” exemption for unionized retail stores, when in fact it’s simply a bargaining chip workers can use in a collective bargaining negotiation, keeping $12.50 as the wage floor.(Not that we’re surprised a Walmart spokesman doesn’t fully understand unions or the process of management negotiating with workers.)
In addition, Restivo claims the full-time average wage for a Walmart associate in Virginia is $12.39 an hour, and yet he says a $12.50 living wage in Washington, D.C.—a more expensive place to live—is an “arbitrary cost.”
Refuting Restivo point by point could be the basis of a much longer post. But the fact remains that Walmart is so desperate, so insecure about their reputation and so prone to bullying behavior that when a college student writes an op-ed in a campus newspaper in support of a policy Walmart doesn’t like, they just can’t resist the urge to launch their PR machine at her.
This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW on July 31, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Doug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).
James and Trina Vetato knew about the freedom riders from history books.
This week, the Paducah, Ky., couple expects to join a civil rights movement-style protest against the world’s largest retailer. The Vetatos are activists in the employees’ group Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short. Trina currently works at a Walmart store and James is a former Walmart employee.
Called the “Ride for Respect,” the demonstration at Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., will be modeled on civil rights volunteers who rode buses into the South in the 1960s to protest Jim Crow racial injustice, says James Vetato.
Busloads of OUR Walmart members will converge on Bentonville from across the country. They will be in town for the annual shareholders’ meeting June 7. Vetato says he expects 300 or more OUR Walmart members to begin arriving the week before the meeting. Most of the protesters—including Trina Vetato—will be taking part in an unfair labor practice strike, says her husband.
The protest will go on the whole week before the meeting. We especially want to draw national attention to Walmart management’s threats and retaliation against workers who speak up for better pay, more hours and respect on the job.
Vetato worked at his wife’s store in Paducah. When he stood up for his rights, he says:
I was threatened and intimidated by management who made my life so miserable I finally quit.
Our Walmart wants better pay, benefits and working conditions. “Like the freedom riders, we will be standing up for dignity and respect and justice and will be protesting peacefully,” Vetato says.
OUR Walmart isn’t a union, but the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is helping the group, says Vetato.
Some other unions are in OUR Walmart’s corner, too. The Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its solidarity with the workers’ struggle at Walmart.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 2, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is the recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. He is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.