The largest private company in the world, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was forced to confront its worst nightmare on June 7: the specter of its own workers and their supporters calling it to account.
Hundreds of courageous striking Walmart workers and their supporters converged on the corporation’s annual stockholders convention in Bentonville, Ark., and held a series of demonstrations, picket lines and mass meetings. Despite a restraining order issued by a local judge who is friendly to Walmart, they even managed to carry their protest inside the stockholders meeting itself.
Significantly, the protests took on an international aspect. One demonstration on June 5 specifically raised the Rana Plaza building collapse and an earlier fire that took the lives of nearly 1,400 garment factory workers in Bangladesh. These factories were under contract to manufacture items bound for sale in Walmart stores, as well as for a number of other big brands.
Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker who now directs the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, not only addressed the meeting, but submitted a formal resolution that the corporate executives and other stockholders were forced to receive for legal reasons.
Akter and her colleagues have repeatedly been jailed in Bangladesh on spurious charges which, according to human rights groups, are designed to suppress labor organizing. Many of the charges have been brought by factories that contract for Walmart.
Despite promises to improve working conditions, in May, Walmart pointedly refused to sign a legally binding agreement on worker safety and building regulations in Bangladesh supported by a number of large international companies which are Walmart rivals.
Akter said, “For years every time there’s a tragedy Walmart officials have made promises to improve the terrible conditions in my country’s factories, yet the tragedies continue. With all due respect, the time for empty promises is over!” (The Nation, June 7)
Akter was followed by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) member Janet Sparks, a leader of the current strike by employees in a Baker, La., Walmart store. Sparks described a company that understaffed, underpaid and overly relied on temporary workers. “So when I think about the fact that our CEO Mike Duke made over $20 million last year, more than 1,000 times the average Walmart associate,” she said, “I don’t think that’s right.” (The Nation)
Despite claiming to be unconcerned with the OUR Walmart movement, Walmart pulled out all the stops in an attempt to blunt the protests. Some 14,000 Walmart employees were flown into Bentonville at company expense and treated to a concert by Elton John. The presence of celebrities like Hugh Jackman (who emceed the event) and Tom Cruise left no doubt that Walmart management’s real concern is that they are fast losing their ability to intimidate and cajole their workers. The flown-in workers were herded around and closely watched by Walmart executives in suits, who intermittently tried to lead them in half-hearted, football-like cheers for Walmart.
Despite the millions of dollars spent, one free vacation for an extremely small percentage of the Walmart U.S. work force (Walmart’s total U.S. workforce is 1.4 million) does not change the abysmal pay and working conditions, which all the Walmart workers are forced to endure. Following the meeting, most of those flown in had little if anything to say to the press in support of Walmart. Most just expressed a desire to get out of town.
The unpleasant truth for Walmart is that by bringing in so many employees, they unintentionally exposed them to the earnest and heroic voices of their co-workers who are fighting for the rights of all the workers.
An enemy of all working people
The courage and determination of the Walmart workers can be appreciated when one considers the behemoth which they are up against.
Members of the Walton family together control more than half of Walmart’s stock, and they take up four of the top 10 slots on Forbes list of the wealthiest individuals in the U.S. Forbes listed the family’s net worth at $120 billion last October. Based on Federal Reserve data, the Economic Policy Institute found that the Walton family has as much wealth as the bottom 41.5 percent of U.S. families combined! (The Nation, June 3)
Capitalized at nearly half a trillion dollars, Walmart is not just the largest private company in the world. Its enormous resources also make it one of the most influential — and its influence crosses party lines. For example, Hillary Rodham Clinton served on Walmart’s board of directors while her spouse was the governor of Arkansas. More recently, both Barack and Michelle Obama have heaped praise on Walmart.
Walmart has been a strong supporter of almost every reactionary, racist cause imaginable.
The Walmart Family Foundation has contributed more than $1 billion to initiatives to privatize public education and smash teachers’ unions. It recently poured in millions of dollars to stop an effort that would have taxed wealthy individuals in California to provide free preschool education to 4-year-olds.
Jim Walton, the youngest son of founder Sam Walton, recently gave a contribution to Arkansas state Rep. Loy Mauch “because of your support for education reform in Arkansas.”(walmart1percent.org, Nov. 2) Mauch believes that “public education was forced upon the South during Reconstruction to complete the aim of the radical socialists, which was to destroy Southern conservatism.”
Mauch also thinks the desegregation of American schools “was never about education, but rather the post-American, despotic federal government coercing its will by using the military to execute the whims of a tyrannical judiciary.” (as quoted in walmart1percent.org)
Other right-wing causes have included financial support for an Arkansas ballot initiative banning couples who live together and are not legally married from becoming adoptive or foster parents. The effort was labeled by a prominent supporter as an attempt to beat back the “gay agenda.” It was passed but overturned by the courts. (The Nation, June 3)
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that in the state’s 2010 legislative elections, which ultimately passed an extensive list of right-wing bills, Walton family members made up six of the top 15 individual donors to the winning candidates.
The Walton Family Foundation was listed, along with Walmart, as a “chairman”-level sponsor of a 2011 meeting of the superconservative American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC has become the primary source for right-wing legislation in the U.S. Many reactionary laws are simply handed to legislators, who introduce them unchanged and sometimes unread.
Sharon Black, a member of the Baltimore Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an organizer for the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, traveled to Bentonville as a representative of the broader community that supports the Walmart workers. “It takes a special kind of courage to notify your boss that you are on strike, then travel hundreds of miles to confront the Walmart brass in its hometown lair,” she told Workers World. “These workers are an inspiration not only to poor and working people within the U.S., but around the world.”