“I’m Excited, I’m Nervous, I’m Scared…” Walmart Workers Walk Off Jobs
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Lichtenstein, the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, said that if workers at one Walmart store went on strike indefinitely, “they’d just close the store, period. And it would be open with a whole new workforce in a week or two. And then it would be litigated for the next three years…” On the other hand, he said, “If every month or so, the workers at a Walmart store walked out, like a three-hour walkout, and then they went back in, that would have tremendous impact.” Brief walk-outs have happened at US Walmart stores in the past, but they’ve never involved multiple stores.
That sets today’s strike apart. But it’s only the latest in a series of strikes in the Walmart supply chain, all by non-union workers. As I’ve reported, eight guest workers at C.J.’s seafood in Louisiana walked off the job in June, alleging violent threats and forced labor. After initially saying it had investigated the workers’ claims and couldn’t substantiate them, Walmart suspended C.J.’s.
Then, the second week of September, warehouse workers who move Walmart goods went on strike in Mira Loma, California and – three days later – in Elwood, Illinois. Both groups of workers – about 65 total – alleged that management had retaliated against employees for protesting abusive conditions. The west coast warehouse workers struck for fifteen days, and joined a fifty-mile march to Los Angeles, before returning to work September 28th. Their Midwest counterparts are still on strike. On Monday, they were joined by supporters – and police in riot gear – for a 600-person rally at which 17 people were arrested for non-violently blocking the entrance to the major Walmart distribution hub.
On paper, the warehouse workers work for Walmart’s contractors, not for Walmart. Company spokesperson Fogleman said that the striking warehouse workers are raising “issues directly with their employers, and not with Walmart.” He said that Walmart is implementing new procedures for monitoring compliance by its suppliers, and added that in inspections, “the observations that have been made at facilities in California and Illinois are that the working conditions are more than satisfactory.”
But in a summer report, the National Employment Law Project argued that the cost-cutting Walmart requires of its contractors makes abuse inevitable. “Walmart controls its supply chain, but it has no legal responsibility,” said Lichtenstein. “That’s what’s brilliant about it.”
Cruz said she believes the warehouse workers’ strikes are “what really led us to do something.” At a Monday panel in New York, OUR Walmart members expressed full-throated solidarity with the striking warehouse workers. “We see what’s happening to them as part of the same process, of the lowering of standards, that’s happening to us,” said grocery worker Mary Pat Tifft.
The striking store workers make up just a tiny percentage of Walmart’s 1.6 million US employees. But their strike, and those of their contracted counterparts, signal a new stage in Walmart’s labor wars. They also come as the company faces new challenges on other fronts, including a congressional investigation of its Mexican bribery scandal and the failure of its latest bid to breach New York City limits.
Southern California has been a focal point for Walmart worker activism, but it isn’t the only one. Two weeks ago, OUR Walmart members in Dallas held a hundred-person rally protesting Walmart’s wages and benefits. And interviewed on Monday, Kenosha, Wisconsin OUR Walmart activist Jackie Gable told Salon that “as in the warehouses…safety issues at the stores, health issues at the stores, are getting to a critical level.” Gable, a prominent OUR Walmart activist, added that she now believes “we have enough of a voice, and enough of a presence” that strikes have become “an option that we could use in stores, if we had to.”