Walmart is facing accusations that the company is engaged in a bold and illegal campaign to stamp out union activity after firing five employees in recent months who were involved in a group organizing the company's workers.
Although the company says that the terminations are unrelated to any employees' organizing activity, OUR Walmart – which receives funding and support from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union – argues that the pattern points to an emerging strategy to break the organization's command structure and intimidate workers.
One terminated worker, Angela Williamson, a mother of two, was fired in late May because, the company says, of unexcused absences. An active organizer at her store in Florida – and at the national level – Williamson says she couldn't pay rent on her apartment after losing her job. She believes that her role in the labor organization led to her termination.
In Los Angeles, where local opposition has been mounting over a proposed Walmart in Chinatown, Girshreila Green was fired from her job earlier this month, just five days after she addressed a crowd at the largest ever anti-Walmart rally. A mother of two and seven months pregnant, Green has been an outspoken critic of Walmart and a leading national organizer at OUR Walmart.
"In the case of these specific employees, there are specific reasons that they're no longer employed that has absolutely nothing to do with their affiliation with the union," said Dan Fogleman, a Walmart spokesperson. "To suggest otherwise is simply not true."
In response to queries about the reason for Green's termination, Fogleman said Green had been out on medical leave for over a year.
"These sort of firings are the most familiar violation seen in labor arbitration," William Gould, a professor of labor law at Stanford University.
"The idea is to single out a particularly active worker in order to put the fear of God into others so that an interest in union activity will be chilled. Highly visible companies like Walmart succeed in not only getting this message to their employees, but also to society at large."
The terminations come as OUR Walmart celebrates its first-year anniversary, after having briskly grown to include thousands of members in hundreds of Walmarts across the country. It is now the largest campaign yet in the decades-long effort to organize Walmart employees.
OUR Walmart's rapid growth my be explained in part by its abandoning of traditional methods of unionization. Typically, a union holds a government-supervised election at a workplace in an effort to win a majority vote among workers, which establishes a certified union.
However, OUR Walmart's organizers bypass elections, forgoing official recognition. In numbers however large, its worker groups hope to gain at least a measure of bargaining power by joining together to press the company for better wages and treatment.
Federal labor law broadly protects the activity of non-certified groups against any retaliatory action by an employer. Yet, protected as they are on paper, workers often meet with frustration in contesting unjust firings.
"The arbitration process is incredibly slow-moving, as it often takes several years of litigation to get employee reinstated," says Kent Wong, the director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education. "Companies realize this and are frequently willing to violate the law knowing the penalty is so distant and relatively minor."
"This all is very consistent with Walmart's practice," Wong added.
The recent terminations will likely play out in court, but, for now, Angela Williamson is spreading her story online and, along with Green, is the subject of a petition for reinstatement.
"Because of that termination I was evicted from my apartment," Williams said in a video posted on YouTube. "I think we all need to stand together and hold Walmart accountable for what they've done to me and numerous other people."
With 2.1 million employees domestically and over four million workers worldwide, Walmart is the largest private employer in world.
Rivaling the awesomeness of its size is the incredible sophistication of Walmart's union avoidance tactics. Walmart examines prospective employees on their likeliness to participate in organized labor, and closely monitors and conditions employees it hires to snub organizing activity before it starts.
The company even has a private jet to convey its mobile union avoidance team anywhere in the country upon detecting nascent organizing efforts.
With not a single successful union drive at Walmart in US history, such strategies appear to be working well for the company. OUR Walmart believes that its non-union route will prove more effective than all past attempts at organizing Walmart.
"Unions for years have tried to unionize Walmart associates, and time and time again our associates have rejected those overtures," Fogleman said. "I think the vast majority of our associates have a very rewarding experience with the company."
[Walmart protest via NoHoDamon / Flickr]