Editor’s note: It was announced Jan. 31 that the OUR Walmart campaign will stop picketing Walmart locations for at least 60 days in response to the company’s filing of charges with the National Labor Relations Board. OUR Walmart stated: “…This does not affect or limit OUR Walmart members’ and supporters’ ability to otherwise protest, demonstrate against or strike because of Walmart’s unfair practices and poor record on labor rights and standards… .” (forrespect.org)
Despite torrential rains and traffic congestion, a large group of activists, including Walmart employees, attended a dinner and discussion on Jan. 30 at the Govans Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. This dinner was part of the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly for the citywide effort “Justice 4 Low-Wage Workers.”
Those attending included members of “OUR Walmart,” an independent organization made up entirely of current and former hourly Walmart workers. OUR Walmart is struggling to reverse how this megacorporation mistreats employees, including lack of respect, inconvenient scheduling and the lack of decent wages.
Among those at the meeting was a woman worker from Haiti, Gnalda Meriser, and her 3-year-old daughter Kayla. Also showing their support were labor representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union; the American Federation of Government Employees Union; and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Baltimore “Occupy Wall Street” was also present.
Other notables included Dr. Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, senior political action chair of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP branches, who stated that he found “being at a labor support gathering more exciting than lobbying politicians.” D. Benton Liggins, the national finance director of the SCLC, was there, along with Diettra Lucas, Local 400 of the UFCW, and Junior Voley, a former Walmart worker from Miami and now a UFCW organizer.
In an opening address welcoming the Walmart workers, the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore SCLC and a representative of the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, stated: “Opposed to turning a blind eye, these folks are determined to fight, and we will be with them in that fight. By all of us coming together it shows that there is more that unites us than divides us, and when a member of our family is under attack, be it police brutality or workers’ rights, it is incumbent for us to fight back!
“When we picketed and went into that Walmart store in Baltimore on Martin Luther King’s birthday and handed out literature and read our declaration of support, even as we were ‘escorted out,’ we understood that workers’ rights are human rights!”
Sharon Black, a representative of the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, explained this was not a “one-shot deal,” but a long-term effort to build a committee of “Justice 4 Low-Wage Workers” and that we need to translate this into old-style organizing.
Black also noted the ongoing preparations in organizing for a march on May 11 from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the Poor Peoples Campaign and assured those who may be unable to walk the 45 miles that transportation would be provided.
Walmart workers speak out
Most inspiring of all were the testimonies of the Walmart workers themselves, the courageous workers who risked everything on “Black Friday” by staging nationwide picket lines, protests, and a strike to highlight how badly the multibillion-dollar Walmart company is treating its workers.
Allan Hansen, co-coordinator of the OUR Walmart campaign, stated that the protest in Baltimore on MLK Day was “heard all the way in Benton, Arkansas. They called the NLRB to complain!” and that “If Walmart was a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world,” and it is the biggest employer, only second worldwide to the Pentagon and the Chinese Army! “I am proud that OUR Walmart started in Laurel, Maryland.” Hansen pointed out that “the old style of organizing store by store is not the answer.”
Stephanie Pryor, a former employee of the Laurel, Md., store, said she was honored that she came out of Walmart for three months in order to be an organizer for UFCW, and that Walmart is a billion-dollar company that treats its workers as less than human. Workers receive only the $7.30 per hour minimum wage there, she said.
Cindy Murray, the leader of the OUR Walmart in Landover, Md., said that “Walmart took our demands on scheduling and put a memo out that they were going to implement it,” but now, “We have to put their feet to the fire!”
The evening concluded with everyone affirming their commitment to continue the struggle.