Walmart workers who recently went on strike in Illinois and California appear to have inspired some of their fellow big box employees, and now it looks like the movement is going viral.
Labor leaders said Tuesday, just one day before Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting, that workers at 28 stores in 12 states walked out and went on strike to demand the anti-union employer raise wages, improve working conditions and end retaliations against employees who attempt to form unions.
“It’s not a hard sell because these people are tired of being treated the way we are being treated by Walmart,” Evelin Cruz, a striking Walmart worker in the Los Angeles area, told Raw Story on Wednesday. “They disregard us as workers. They think that we are machines, we should have no emotions. We should not have families. We should not have the right to speak. So it’s pretty easy to convince people to get on-board. We need to have more voices around the country being heard with the same message, because it is the same situation in every store and throughout their supply chain.”
The strikes on Tuesday were just the second time in more than a half century that Walmart workers walked off the job at multiple stores, and comes on the heels of strikes at nine Walmart stores in Los Angeles. Those followed a 21-day action put on by Chicago-area Walmart warehouse workers, whose strike recently ended after their employer agreed to a major settlement over allegations of wage theft.
In the wake of these two strikes and the ripple-effect being felt across the company, it suddenly looks like a whole new ballgame for organized labor.
One of the problems striking workers cite is the lack of access to full-time working hours, which prevents them from obtaining even the meager health benefits the company offers. The National Consumer’s League (NCL) told Raw Story that Walmart’s refusal to provide those benefits by exploiting part-time labor leads to a number of spillover costs that taxpayers ultimately pick up.
“Many Walmart workers are dependent on public assistance programs due to their low wages and not having access to full time jobs and being denied benefits because they’re not working the number of hours required to get access to those benefits, or the benefits are just so expensive that on their low wages they just can’t afford them,” NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg said in an exclusive interview. “Walmart has a record of even working with employees to sign them up for public assistance programs, which we think is really atrocious.”
She added that Walmart’s position of keeping wages low in order to pass the savings along to consumers doesn’t wash either: “Companies that pay a decent wage and provide benefits to their workers help create a middle class that is able to buy the kinds of products that Walmart sells,” Greenberg explained. “It is actually a plus for companies if they provide fair compensation to workers. It’s also better for consumers when they’re able to actually afford housing, healthcare and have access to benefits of the kind we think Walmart, with all its success and profits, ought to be able to pay workers.”
The famously anti-union retailer, which says it employs more than 2.1 million people, raked in $114.3 billion in revenues during just the second fiscal quarter of 2012, earning a profit of $4.02 billion. Berkeley labor economist Sylvia Allegretto found last year that just six of the Walton family’s richest members have a combined wealth greater than the bottom 30 percent of American earners put together.
The problem with increasing labor’s leverage against that kind of wealth is that most Walmart workers don’t realize that U.S. law guarantees their right to strike if their employer has violated labor law, which is why organized workers are calling for an end to illegal “retaliations” against workers who discuss forming unions. Groups on a conference call organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union on Wednesday said they’re planning another round of strikes on Black Friday, the biggest sales day of the year, if their demands aren’t met.
Colby Harris, a striking Walmart worker in Dallas, told Raw Story that the primary obstacle to growing their numbers is fear, plain and simple. “It’s not hard to convince people,” he said, stressing that “there is no such thing as job security” at Walmart. “We all work there together, they see what’s going on. They know that what Walmart does is not right. The thing about it is that those people who haven’t joined are just so fearful.”
“They want to see someone stand up for them first, and that’s what [we] are here for, to show them that you can go on strike and you can go back to work and not face any injustice or termination because you chose to stand up for your rights,” he added. “We can’t be fearful. We have to set the example for other workers.”
Mike Compton, who joined the victorious strike put on by Walmart warehouse workers in Illinois, insisted that Tuesday’s actions were just the beginning. “The fact that we were on strike for 23 days and we are now back in, the workers see now they do have rights,” he said. “We’re planning a ‘Know Your Rights’ class for workers, where we’ll go over the [National Labor Relations Bureau] handbook and teach them that we do have the right to organize and stand up for fair labor practices. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re going to get it done.”
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Photo: Flickr user Walmart Stores, creative commons licensed.