Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Newest Strike Against Walmart Battles Years of Blatant Disregard for Workers

A dirty history of discrimination, abuse, intimidation, neglect and illegal strike suppression: that's Walmart.

Photo Credit: By Brave New Films from United States (photo taken by Joey Caputo) (002_2) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Walmart has a long history of evading the law, abusing its workers, and suppressing strikes through illegal means. This week, OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect) is beginning the first sustained strike against Walmart, and it’s about time. News of the strike arrives just as Walmart is facing public scrutiny for dumping toxic sludge into California’s sanitary sewers

Walmart has also been in the news over the last several years for rampant sex discrimination. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Walmart in Dukes v. Walmart, a class action suit filed by Betty Dukes on behalf of one million female employees of Walmart. The court ruled that the employees of Walmart who had been harmed were “too diverse” a group. In May of 2012, 1,975 women filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In fact, one woman from every Walmart region in the country filed a complaint, all alleging pay discrimination. Lawyers hope that these diverse regional suits will be upheld by the Supreme Court.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who spent three months undercover working in Walmart, wrote an essay about the experience for Inequality Matters titled "Earth to Wal Mars," which she later adapated  for the New York Times. She writes that Walmart puts strong pressure on employees not to unionize, requiring them to attend anti-union lectures where they are warned, "a pro-union vote is likely to lead to a company decision to shut down the factory.” A House Committee on Education and the Workforce report found:

In the last few years, well over 100 unfair labor practice charges have been lodged against Walmart throughout the country… Walmart’s labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize a union to unlawful surveillance, threats, and intimidation of employees who dare to speak out.

And Walmart follows through on its threats. When workers who cut and packaged meat in Walmart in February 2000 voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, many of their fellow workers nationwide  decided follow suit and vote for unionization. Walmart responded by announcing a decision shift to using pre-packaged meat in the store. The employees had to wait three years before a court ordered Walmart into discussion with the union, a decision that was still in the appeals process in 2006. Walmart stalled, so the employees brought another complaint to the National Labor Board, accusing Walmart of illegal retaliation. The board ruled again in 2009 that Walmart would have to talk to the union. Both sides sat down in early 2009, but to this day no agreement has been reached.

Mother Jones reports that, "In 10 separate cases, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Wal-Mart repeatedly broke the law by interrogating workers, confiscating union literature, and firing union supporters." In one particularity brutal instance in 1997, Walmart fired four union supporters, "one of whom was beaten by the plant’s police on the day of the 1997 election." The workers were eventually reinstated—15 years later. In another case, a Walmart store on the verge of unionizing was shut down. Apparently, Walmart would rather close a store than run a unionized shop.

Walmart has also demonstrated a cycle of abuse via unpaid wages. Earlier this year, Walmart had to pay $1.1 million to 845 workers for unpaid wages. Ehrenreich writes ofworkers that were asked to work overtime without compensation, and in 2001 Wal-Mart was ordered to compensate 69,000 workers in Colorado for $50 million in unpaid wages. In 2008, Walmart paid a settlement fee of $54.25 million to workers in Minnesota, then had to settle another lawsuit that spanned the country to the tune of $352 million. The settlement covered 63 separate cases in 42 states. Last year, the Department of Labor ordered Walmart to pay another settlement fee of $4.8 million to 4,500 employees. 

Among the meagre compensations alllotted to Walmart employees are health benefits. When Ehrenreich infiltrated Walmart, employees had to pay between $228 -$472 a month to opt into their health plan, which does not cover dependents. Fewer than half of the company's employees are covered for health. The 2004 House reportfound that between 41 and 46 percent of workers receive health benefits, which is significantly less than the national average of 66 percent. Workers who are covered pay 42 percent of the cost, compared with the 16 percent national average.

Many Walmart employees struggle to pay bills, and an internal document released last year revealed a hideous compensation plan. The document reveals the policy for raises:

"Low-level workers typically start near minimum wage, and have the potential to earn raises of 20 to 40 cents an hour through incremental promotions. Flawless performance merits a 60 cent raise per year under the policy, regardless of how much time an employee has worked for the company ..."

Because Walmart workers are so poorly compensated, they are encouraged to apply for food stamps and other welfare benefits at orientation. The effect is to shift costs from businesses to taxpayers. According to the House report: “one 200-person Walmart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year – about $2,103 per employee.”

Walmart settled a lawsuit in 2005 for $11 million for hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.

As if on some sort of perverse mission to violate every U.S. labor law in existence, Walmart has also been fined for using child labor, paid $6 million for discrimination against handicapped people, and threatened workers who file OSHA complaints telling them any fines would be taken from their paychecks. 

Overseas, Walmart has come under fire for multiple incidents of child labor use, and continues to decline to compensate victims of the tragedy that occurred in their Bangladesh factories earlier this year.

Given the company's history, it is not altogether surprising that since OUR Walmart’s inception, Walmart has worked to crush the budding movement. A recent report from American Rights at Work found that as workers have increased their protests and demands—with notable actions like the Black Friday Strike last year—Walmart has retaliated aggressively. The continually disguise their acts of retaliation as routine enforcement of company policy and threaten to fire workers who speak out. OUR Walmart is the most recent attempt to stand up to the corporate bully. OUR Walmart maintains a petition that you can sign, but the most important show of solidarity is to avoid shopping at Walmart and encourage others to join in the boycott. Walmart is trying to ignore the strike, calling it a "publicity stunt," but if it starts to hurt their bottom line, they'll probably reconsider.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos. Follow him on [email protected]

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