Stand Up, Live Better: Historic Walmart Strikes Occupy Black Friday
While retail sales on Black Friday failed to break records, Wal-Mart workers made history.
"We've been retaliated against, silenced, and intimidated, and we're no longer going to take it," said Cynthia Murray, a nearly 13-year Wal-Mart employee on strike in Laurel, Maryland.
With more than 1,000 demonstrations in a hundred cities, organizers say, workers walked off the job to protest poverty-level wages, poor hours and working conditions, and retaliation from management.
Workers at Wal-Mart, which is notorious for union-busting, had never gone on strike in America until a few months ago. Then all of a sudden in September, warehouse workers walked off the job in California and Illinois. Retail workers soon followed, and a wave of rolling strikes culminated with the Black Friday actions.
In suburban Maryland, more than 400 union members, faith leaders, and community supporters marched two-by-two in a huge line, getting as close as they were allowed to the Capitol Plaza, Laurel, and Severn store locations while helicopters circled overhead.
Organizers urged protesters to "channel their inner Gandhi" and be peaceful even if faced with hostility. People chanted "Stand up, live better" and "Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, you're no good, treat your workers like you should," and sang (with the help of DC Labor Chorus members) retooled Christmas carols like "Wal-Mart sells, Wal-Mart sells, workers down a hole," and "Deck the aisles with living wages."
Occupy DC made a strong showing at the rallies, and marchers warmly welcomed both them and their tactics. One of the five busloads of demonstrators split off from the group for a large mic check protest at the Severn store. While the rest of the group sang carols, two Occupy DC members sauntered into the Laurel store and tried unsuccessfully to take over the PA system—managers, it seemed, had either changed the widely published codes or shut off the system when they saw the rally coming.
The Occupy movement gave organized labor a shot in the arm last fall with its populist energy and "99%" rhetoric, and these strikes shared Occupy's decentralized spirit while bucking established labor tactics. Much of the planning happened online, and organizers still don't know exactly how many workers went on strike nationwide (at least hundreds, perhaps a few thousand).
Wal-Mart waved aside the significance of the actions, claiming that as of Friday morning, only about 50 workers had struck nationwide.
Organizers would dispute this number: Fewer than a dozen workers on strike from the Laurel location joined the Maryland rally on Friday, but about 100 had been striking throughout the week in the DC area alone. Many unloaders, for instance, struck on Monday to greater impact the supply chain.
It's true that actively striking workers were often a minority at the Black Friday actions. Most of the Maryland protesters were supporters with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union or Jobs With Justice. But organizers said that these rallies were designed to show massive community support for workers and their grievances, and to pressure Walmart into keeping its promises not to retaliate against strikers.
Workers who walked off the job took a risk. They are not protected by an official union, though the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union supports OUR Walmart, a worker-run organization that has repeatedly attempted to negotiate with management for the last two years.
Alan Forrest, a 10-year employee of Wal-Mart, told Campus Progress he was retaliated against after demonstrating at Wal-Mart's Bentonville headquarters with OUR Walmart.
"They had me stand out in the vestibule where the shopping carts were at, where it was anywhere from 98 to 102 degrees, while everybody else was in an air conditioned store," he said.
At the Capitol Plaza and Laurel rallies, local faith leader Reverend Edwin L. Jones, Jr. confronted Wal-Mart representatives: Would they promise not to retaliate against striking workers with layoffs, reduced hours, or less desirable duties?
The representatives insisted that Wal-Mart does not retaliate, though Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar's asserted that "there could be consequences" if workers didn't show up for their shift.
A leaked memo indicates that while Wal-Mart officially forbids retaliation, it has little love for organized labor: "[A]ctivists or union organizers have been trying for years to stop our Company's growth and to damage our relationship with our customers and members." And the innocuous-sounding "coaching" techniques advocated in the memo have been used to intimidate workers in the past.
Murray spoke to Campus Progress about so-called "captive audience meetings," where management takes aside small groups to discourage them from unionizing.
"[Management would] tell us we're coming [to talk about] our health care benefits, and then get in a room and shut the door, paper the window up, and talk anti-union," she said.
As both Murray and Forrest are full-time employees, they can look forward to about a 40-cent raise every year. Forrest said that his most recent meager raise got him taken off of Medicaid because he now makes too much money, and he said he can't afford to purchase other insurance.
Many Wal-Mart employees are forced to subsist on public assistance like Medicaid and food stamps. Meanwhile, the company receives generous government subsidies like land grants and tax breaks, and the Walton family's combined net worth equals that of the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.
Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in America, and activists often cite its disproportionate influence on the labor market as a whole.
"We know that wages and working conditions set by Wal-Mart have a ripple effect throughout all jobs, from low wages to limited access to health care to no retirement security," said Jobs with Justice executive director Sarita Gupta at the Maryland rally.
Indeed, hourly retail wages have plummeted since 1972 (when Wal-Mart was first publicly traded) from 91 percent of the average wage for all workers, to a mere 70 percent in October 2012.
For unions, workers and activists, this is a fight not just for Wal-Mart employees, but for hourly workers everywhere. Where Wal-Mart goes, so goes the nation.
Most workers returned to their shifts over the weekend, but OUR Walmart and other groups have promised to keep a close eye on the multinational conglomerate. If workers lose hours or jobs due to striking, or if working conditions don't improve, activists say they will be there.
"We are making a commitment to come back as often as it takes to make sure Wal-Mart respects its workers and their right to speak out," Gupta said.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.