Walmart's Exploitation Is Nothing New, So What Made Workers Finally Fight Back?
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The company’s ability to stave off unions, both through a deliberate and concerted campaign against labor, as well as its early history of cultivating worker loyalty, has had a ripple effect nationwide. Even workers in union supermarkets in Los Angeles, when Walmart moves in, face the threat of lowered wages and benefits as their employers are forced to compete.
OUR Walmart’s work has been different, succeeding in a way that traditional union organizing has failed, in part by replicating an older model of organizing that draws on the support of allies in the community, including faith leaders. They have thousands of members now in 44 states, including a trio in the heart of Walmart Country: Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Perhaps more importantly, as Bobo noted, when Walmart expanded outside of its rural Southern base -- particularly into urban areas -- it came into contact with different community values and religious cultures, with ministers like Pastor Edwin Jones of the Living Faith Baptist Church and International Ministries in Washington, D.C., who are already engaged with community organizing around economic justice issues. Jones’ community, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the D.C. area, has been fighting a Walmart in their neighborhood, pushing for a community benefit agreement with the retailer that would guarantee jobs for local residents who desperately need them. As a faith leader in an African-American congregation with a social gospel history, Jones was deeply involved in that struggle, and it was through that work in D.C. -- a long way, both literally and metaphorically, from Bentonville -- that he was connected with OUR Walmart and their campaign for Walmart workers. For him it was an easy decision to get involved and to travel the country, organizing with the workers.
Rural Southern churches have little structure for engaging with such fights even if individual pastors might be interested in doing so, Bobo added. But pastors like Jones, whose church has always been steeped in social and economic justice, represent a different strain of Christianity that Walmart is having to contend with as it expands into the North and especially into urban areas, where low-wage workers aren’t just white women, but are increasingly immigrants and people of color. Catholic churches with ties to Latin American progressive traditions, African-American Protestant churches with roots in the Civil Rights movement and white Protestant churches in the social gospel tradition bring a very different standard for what it means to care for the community.
While he was working with OUR Walmart in California, Jones met a young Latina woman, a Walmart employee, who was pregnant. The company had given her no time off, had pressured her not to take sick days, and implied that maybe she should just quit her job if she wasn’t feeling well. One day, Jones said, her manager told her, “You didn’t come to this country just to have babies.” It stuck with him, he said, the dehumanization.
Protesting this kind of treatment of mothers and mothers-to-be, Moreton noted, epitomizes different kind of “family values” -- not about gay marriage or abortion, but the value of taking care of one another. “There are a whole lot of ways to see family values as economic values as well,” she pointed out. The workers, too, see the value of solidarity, of supporting their colleagues, as a “family” value. “What people are saying publicly is we want recognition of the dignity of service work,” said Moreton. “I think that’s really powerful and potentially very legible to people whose primary framework for thinking about policy and economics starts with their faith.”