Low-wage workers take on Walmart

From Illinois to southern California, Walmart workers are fighting back against one of the most notorious union-busting corporations in the United States. They are walking out against unfair labor practices and protesting the working conditions and low pay foisted upon them by the largest retail corporation in the world. These courageous workers, not members of any union, are organizing for dignity, respect and better working conditions for themselves and their coworkers, families and communities. They are gaining the support and solidarity of working people and the oppressed throughout the U.S.

First, a two-week strike of Walmart warehouse workers began in southern California on Sept. 12. The workers and their allies then marched 50 miles demanding Walmart pay them stolen wages, rectify health and safety violations, and deal with discrimination and sexual assaults on the job. They won their strike when Walmart agreed to address health and safety issues, hold inspections and take responsibility for working conditions.

Just a few days after that strike began, warehouse workers at Walmart’s largest distribution center in North America, in Elwood, Ill., went out Sept. 15 on an unfair labor practice strike. These workers toil under brutal conditions, as temps, often earning less than $200 per week. On Oct. 1 the striking workers were joined by trade union activists, religious leaders and community activists who marched on the distribution center and shut it down for the day. Seventeen people were arrested for “obstructing a roadway” by police in full riot gear. They were eventually released. (Chicagoist.com, Oct. 2)

After a three-week strike in Elwood, the warehouse work stoppage came to an end when Walmart agreed to stop illegal retaliation against workers who speak out against bad working conditions. The victorious workers returned to work with full pay for all days they were out on strike.

One-day walkout in Los Angeles area, an historic first

In an historic first, workers from nine Walmart stores in the Los Angeles area staged a one-day walkout on Oct. 4. Hundreds of Walmart workers and their supporters picketed outside the Pico Rivera, Calif., store with signs reading, “On Strike for the Freedom to Speak Out” and “Walmart Strike Against Retaliation.”

Walmart store workers are called “associates” by the company in an obvious attempt to obviate their status as workers who deserve rights and decent wages and conditions. While Walmart workers in other parts of the world are unionized — the company first relented in 2006 to a union-organizing effort in China — workers at Walmart at U.S. warehouses and stores labor under venomous anti-union rules and practices.

“For over a year, Walmart retail workers have been coming together to call for change at Walmart,” said Venanzi Luna, a Walmart worker and member of OUR Walmart who took part in the walkout. “Through our worker-led Organization United for Respect at Walmart, workers like myself have been calling on the company to address issues with scheduling, benefits, wages and above all, respect in the workplace.

“But instead of being responsive,” Luna asserted, “Walmart has lashed out at us for speaking up. The company is trying to silence and intimidate us through unfair disciplinary actions, cutbacks in hours and even firings. We’re on strike to protest these illegal attempts to silence us.” (forrespect.org, Oct. 4)

The Los Angeles walkout and Pico Rivera protest were organized by OUR Walmart, which is backed by the Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). Unionized Walmart workers from Africa, Great Britain, Latin America and Canada have met with Los Angeles Walmart workers to coordinate support for the international struggle against Walmart.

“Energy around the calls for Walmart to change its treatment of workers and communities has been building,” according to OUR Walmart’s website, forrespect.org. “In just one year, OUR Walmart, the unique workers’ organization founded by Walmart Associates, has grown from a group of 100 Walmart workers to an army of thousands of Associates in hundreds of stores across 43 states.”

The organization notes that as Walmart workers face many horrible conditions, “the company is raking in almost $16 billion a year in profits, executives made more than $10 million each in compensation last year. Meanwhile, the Walton Family — heirs to the Walmart fortune — [is] the richest family in the country with more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of [U.S.] families combined.”

Strikes, protests spread further

Soon after the southern California walkout and mass protest, Walmart workers walked out on strike Oct. 9 in at least a dozen cities and surrounding areas, including Dallas and Austin, Texas; Seattle; Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, Calif.; Miami and Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago, according to Dan Schlademan, director of the UFCW’s Making Change At Walmart campaign. Walmart workers also walked off the job in parts of Kentucky,Missouri and Minnesota.(huffingtonpost.com, Oct. 9)

On Oct. 10, hundreds of workers and their supporters gathered outside the Bentonville, Ark., Walmart headquarters where the annual investors meeting was taking place. The company has acknowledged the workers’ legal right to strike over unfair labor practices, but says it will only talk to “associates” on an “individual” basis, not as a group. (ABC News)

Now Walmart worker-organizers are beginning plans for a strike on the busiest shopping day of the year, so-called “Black Friday,” the day after “Thanksgiving” when Walmart cash registers ring up 4,000 sales per second. A walkout on this day could potentially have severe financial repercussions for the company.

The fear that this grass-roots, worker-led organizing might spread further seems to have struck a deep chord in the capitalist ruling class in the United States. Major big business media like the New York Times and ABC News and other news outlets were forced to report on these developments.

The opening salvo began in February 2011 when workers under attack in Wisconsin occupied their State Capitol to try to save public sector jobs and unions. Their struggle electrified workers and community members everywhere. Then in September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement started when youth, with no prospects and no future other than low-wage slavery and high debts, began to organize, occupy and fight back around the U.S. Now, more low-wage workers of many nationalities, many of them women workers, are taking the lead, organizing, speaking out and fighting back against the largest retail corporation in the world.

For more information, photos and videos on this growing struggle, join the Organization United for Respect page on Facebook.

Chris Fry contributed to this article.