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Is Wal-Mart Purging Activists Who Went On Strike?

In a coordinated purge, Walmart has lashed out against workers who walked out in early June.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Inoyamanaka79

 

In a coordinated purge, Walmart has lashed out against workers who walked out in early June.

Sixty have been fired or disciplined so far, said Brandon Garrett, a worker from Baker, Louisiana, who was fired June 28. About two dozen have been terminated.

The retaliation appears to be in response to the week-long strike by hundreds of store employees. Many took buses to the corporation’s home office in Bentonville, Arkansas, and brought their grievances to the annual shareholder meeting nearby.

The strike and “Ride for Respect” to Bentonville was the most ambitious action yet for the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a group of Walmart retail workers formed in 2011 with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Over the past three years, OUR Walmart members have conducted several one-day strikes, including two on consecutive Black Fridays, the biggest shopping days of the year. The organization’s goals include a living wage at the stores, respect on the job, adequate hours, health care, and a way to redress grievances.

Walmart’s owners, relatives of its founder Sam Walton, together control more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined. However, sales have sagged as understaffing has produced long cashier lines and chaotic shelves.

The firings didn’t happen when the workers first returned from Bentonville. Garrett and another worker in his store were fired three weeks later—for failing to show up the days they struck. Workers said they thought Walmart headquarters is coordinating the firings.

Garrett, who worked as an overnight stocker, explained to his supervisor that he was striking to protest unfair labor practices and that it was illegal to fire him for participating. “We don’t recognize strikers,” his supervisor told him.

Among the six people from his store who struck, two were fired and the other four were given warnings. (Accumulate three warnings and you’re out. “Like baseball,” Garrett explained.)

No Show, No Call?

Fired workers said managers accused them of not showing up and not calling in when they were on strike.

But OUR Walmart, anticipating the stores would claim this, had faxed lists of the workers going out on strike to managers in each store. In addition, the workers called the number they call when they’re calling in sick, and got confirmation numbers, said Yvette Brown, a fabric department worker fired from her store in Placerville, California. Supervisors claimed they never got the fax or the call.

Her mother, Norma Dobyns, said she was fired from the same store for the same bogus reason. “And they claim to care about families,” said Dobyns.

The mother-daughter duo traveled to New York to protest outside the house of Walmart director Christopher Williams, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on Friday. They passed out leaflets directed at Williams, saying, “The time for silence is over,” and asking passersby to sign a petition.

Understaffing is a problem in the Placerville store. “There’s not enough help, not enough cashiers,” said Dobyns. “They pull people from other departments.”

Brown, who works in the fabrics and crafts department, described her responsibilities in a four-hour shift: Re-shelve stuff people didn’t buy, cut fabric for customers, answer the phone, empty two pallets of freight.

“If you get close to having enough hours [thirty a week] to qualify for the health insurance, they cut your hours,” said Brown.

Another striker, Marc Bowers, was fired with two co-workers two weeks after they returned from Bentonville. He had worked at a Dallas, Texas, store for eight years, and said he joined OUR Walmart because of the company’s “total lack of respect for hard work.” He said broken cart pushers at the store made his job harder.

“I got tired of being scared,” Bowers said. “And the more I spoke up, the more they had me in the office.”

Bowers thought the firings would affect his coworkers in two ways: “It’ll rev it up a little more. Half will be more mad, and half will be more fearful,” he said. Coworkers were angry when he was fired. “They know how hard I work and how long I’ve been there.”

Since this new wave of retaliations, OUR Walmart has been scheduling protests targeting key Walmart board members. Five were arrested June 24 outside Yahoo’s annual shareholder meeting in Sunnyvale, California, targeting Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer since she is also a Walmart board member.

The retaliatory firings come as strikes by non-union fast food workers continue to spread across the country. This week Kansas City and Flint join five other cities in coordinated one-day strikes for $15 an hour, a union, and an end to retaliation. Some fast food workers have also been fired for organizing.

Labor Board Logjam

Fired workers said they were not allowed to bring a co-worker or advocate with them to the meeting where they were fired. In most cases, two assistant managers behind a closed door told the worker they couldn’t leave until they signed something.

Brown said her chosen advocate, a co-worker who was off that day, was ejected by Walmart management. When Brown tried to let her back in the room, there was a tense standoff.

According to recent labor board interpretations, workers without a union don’t have a right to have an advocate with them in disciplinary meetings with management, but the board has flip-flopped on this several times.

The firings are almost certainly illegal retaliation under the National Labor Relations Act, but workers may have to wait to see justice carried out. The labor board has a slow process even in good times, but in recent years it has been declawed by Congressional Republicans—who have obstructed the appointment of board members, leaving the board without a quorum to conduct business.

When President Obama appointed additional members while the Senate was out of town, companies affected by the board’s decisions sued, charging that the appointments weren’t valid because they weren’t during a real “recess.”

Now lower courts have produced conflicting decisions on whether any board decisions for the last year are valid. As a result, the whole mess is headed for the Supreme Court.

However, the logjam may clear just in time for the Walmart workers. Democrats have been threatening to change Senate rules so that a simple majority vote (rather than 60 percent) is needed to fill vacancies in the administration. A compromise was reached in which the labor board appointees will be voted in all as one block. The new labor secretary was also confirmed as part of the deal.

A muscular labor board could order Walmart to stop the retaliation, and if the egregious conduct continued, order it to allow employees to organize.

 

Jenny Brown is a staff writer for Labor Notes. jenny@labornotes.org

 
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