“I’m Excited, I’m Nervous, I’m Scared…” Walmart Workers Walk Off Jobs
Today, for the first time in Walmart’s fifty-year history, workers at multiple stores are out on strike. Minutes ago, dozens of workers at Southern California stores launched a one-day work stoppage in protest of alleged retaliation against their attempts to organize. In a few hours, they’ll join supporters for a mass rally outside a Pico Rivera, CA store. This is the latest – and most dramatic – of the recent escalations in the decades-long struggle between organized labor and the largest private employer in the world.
“I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m scared…” Pico Rivera Walmart employee Evelin Cruz told Salon yesterday about her decision to join today’s strike. “But I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you.” Rivera, a department manager, said her store is chronically understaffed: “They expect the work to be done, without having the people to do the job.”
Walmart is entirely union-free in North America, and has worked aggressively to stay that way. Today’s strike is an outgrowth of a year of organizing by OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart workers. OUR Walmart is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, but hasn’t sought union recognition from Walmart; its members have campaigned for improvements in their local stores and converged at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting.
They say their efforts have won some modest improvements, but also inspired a wave of illegal retaliation by the retail giant, which they charge is more concerned suppressing activism than complying with the law. I reported in July on three workers’ allegations that Walmart retaliated against them for their activism. Since then, OUR Walmart has filed many more Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging further punishment of activists.
Interviewed yesterday about OUR Walmart, Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman emphasized the group’s funding from unions, which he charged “are focused on their own agenda…getting more members to join their unions. That gives them more revenue to help fund the political agendas that they have.” He suggested that today’s rally might have been organized as a stunt to impress visiting leaders from the UNI global union federation, who are currently visiting Los Angeles to launch a global Walmart labor alliance. Fogleman denied the allegations of retaliation: “Unfair Labor Practice charges are similar to lawsuits. Anyone can file them, regardless of whether it’s a valid claim or not. We disagree with those assertions.”
The strikers are taking a risk. With certain exceptions, courts have found that U.S. law prohibits disciplining non-union workers who go on strike in an effort to improve their working conditions. “The bottom line,” former NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said yesterday, “is non-union people, as well as unionized people, have a right to concertedly walk off the job in protest.” Whether employers can legally permanently replace striking workers (effectively terminating them) depends on whether a strike is ruled to have been in protest of Unfair Labor Practices, and whether the workers offered to come back before the company had hired replacements. But Walmart strikers said yesterday that they expect the company will seek ways to punish them anyway. Already, photo department worker Victoria Martinez said yesterday, “Every time I go into work, I get panic attacks…I’m always wondering what are they going to try to do to me when I come in.”
Interviewed yesterday, University of California labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein predicted that in the event of a Walmart employee strike, public relations would play a bigger role in restricting Walmart’s response than any legal restrictions. If a work stoppage mustered “a substantial number of the workers” in a store, he said, then “a tougher response would be a PR disaster.”