Walmart Strikes Spread Nationwide
What started as isolated walkouts in California by employees of retail giant Walmart has spread to cities across the nation, as workers fight for better working conditions and the right to organize. The strikes have been reported as the first in Walmart’s history, although the company notes that there was a previous walkout at a Florida outlet in 2006.
In September, warehouse workers walked off the job in Mira Loma, California, then were joined by others in Illinois. Now store and warehouse employees have been striking in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Washington D.C., Sacramento, San Francisco and other cities for intermittent periods of time.
Walmart employs 1.4 million people in the United States, and 2.2 million worldwide, standing as the largest employer in the world, outside the United States and Chinese militaries. Its North American operations do not include any union workers.
Among the issues that employees are striking over include workplace safety, staffing, pay and retaliation against those who complain about their employment conditions. Hovering over all of the issues are organizers who wish to bring a union to some or all Walmart facilities. A group known as OUR Walmart, working with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has been organizing walkouts and is pushing company executives to sign a “declaration of respect” for its employees. So far the campaign has not actually sought to certify a union for any Walmart employees.
Walmart Fires Back
The company has defended its working conditions and pay. “If you go out on the Web and look at some of the stories of people that work at some of these unionized grocers in Southern California were telling you last year … you’re gonna see people working part-time jobs for less than ten dollars an hour,” a company spokesperson said to a Los Angeles radio station. “Yet they’re complaining about our jobs, when the average full-time associate in California makes $12.82 an hour.”
In other statements, Walmart reps have dismissed the walkouts as publicity stunts. However, an internal company memo obtained by the Huffington Post warned salaried employees of the threat of union organizers. “As you know, activists or union organizers have been trying for years to stop our Company’s growth and to damage our relationship with our customers and members,” the memo reads. “One of the activists’ or union organizers’ tactics is to try to disrupt the business by urging our associates to participate in a walkout or other form of work stoppage.”
The notice warns managers not to discipline employees for strikes or protests. OUR Walmart has helped workers file a number of unfair labor practices charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board for retaliation against strikers.
Workers, of course, have the right by law to walk off the job to protest working conditions, and employers cannot retaliate against them. But what exactly constitutes retaliation?
“You can use common sense for retaliation,” explains Matthew A. Kaufman, a labor and employment attorney in the Los Angeles area. “Are they being punished directly or indirectly for striking?” Managers are not allowed to threaten or intimidate striking workers, promise anything in exchange for dropping organization-related activities or attempt to spy on them.
If employees can show they had hours cut or were fired because of a protest, they would have a case against their employer. However, the company can employ other tactics to try to sway its workers to come back on the clock. “They can send out representatives to argue that unionization is bad, that the status quo is better,” Kaufman says. They can also hire replacement workers, depending on circumstances, or even close a store. “Walmart can close down the entire shop if they want,” the attorney says. “But if they want to keep the shop open, they can’t put obstacles in the path of the right to organize.”
Regardless of how the employees’ agitations shake out, everyone can take heart that the battles are being fought nonviolently in the streets, media and courtrooms, a giant step forward from the bloody union struggles at the turn of the last century. “They can’t bring in the Pinkertons to break people’s legs,” Kaufman notes. “One hundred years ago it was pretty violent.”