A demonstration at the Midtown Manhattan offices of one of Walmart's board members.
Protests erupted at Walmart outlets across the country on Thursday, mounted by workers and their supporters who are demanding America's largest employer provide a living wage. In Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Orlando, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere coast to coast, Walmart entrances were clotted with men and women in the bright green T-shirts of Our Walmart, a campaign to improve working conditions at the mega-chain and at its suppliers.
Walmart employees—or as the company refers to them, associates—complain of low take-home pay, unaffordable healthcare, unpredictable hours, bullying, and discrimination from management at the retailer, which retains 1.3 million Americans on its payroll. Six members of the Walton family, decedents of Walmart founder Samuel Walton and owners of a near majority stake in the corporation, together have a net worth surpassing that of over 40 percent of American families combined. Walmart took in $16 billion last year alone, but the company's smiley face insignia has become a symbol of exploitation to many who stock its shelves and man its registers.
“If people knew what is going on behind close doors,” said Lucus Handy, a former associate in the customer service department at a Walmart superstore in Fort Dodge, Iowa, “they would force Walmart to change.”
Explaining why he decided to join Our Walmart, Handy said that when his supervisor found out he was gay, she let it be known she didn't like homosexuals. “She would order me around, saying things like, 'Get over here rainbow.'” When he complained to upper management, Handy said he was demoted. “They moved me from customer service where I was working 40-hours a week and making $10.25 an hour to the pharmacy department where I was working 35 hours a week at $8.50 an hour.”
Even before his demotion Handy could barely afford his Walmart health insurance and when his wages and hours were cut he had to do without it. “Just to go to the emergency room with Walmart insurance cost me $300. I don't have that kind of cash lying around. I need to buy food, to pay rent.”
Once management got wind that Handy was talking mutiny to his co-workers he was given the ax. Our Walmart claims approximately 100 workers like Handy have been either reprimanded or let go in retaliation for their workplace organizing since the campaign began to snowball last fall when it smacked the company's box stores with strikes on Black Friday—the busiest shopping day of the year—that November.
At Fifth Avenue and 52nd in Manhattan on Thursday, Handy and other laid off associates arrived at the offices of Christopher Williams, the CEO of Williams Capital Group, who sits on Walmart's Board of Directors and runs a blog called The Black Socialite in his spare time. In their hands the former associates carried a petition with 200,000 signatures demanding that their jobs be reinstated.
Susan Gulick was among them. “I've worked as a baker, a fork-lift operator, and all kinds of retail jobs,” she said. A New Yorker born and raised, Gulick headed south after the recession looking for employment and eventually took a job as an associate at a superstore in North Carolina. She worked there for about a year until she was terminated. “Working for Walmart was the worst job I ever had,” she said. “The pay is lousy. The treatment is horrific. They try to break people. They treat them like objects. They told us to acknowledge customers when they are at least ten feet away, but our supervisors would just walk right by us. I would sit in my car unable to drive home when I got off cause I couldn't stop crying.”
“I was fired for speaking out, for being an activist,” Gulick claimed. She’s in her her mid-50s, and worries she won't be able to find another job. She wants to go back to Walmart, but wants things to change there as well. Barred from entering the premises of Williams's Midtown office building by security and the New York Police Department, she and Handy sat down at the entrance and were escorted away in handcuffs.
Meanwhile, Walmart sought to protect its public image. “It's just a show,” said Dan Fogleman, reached by phone, with the company's public relation's wing. “With very few exceptions the cast members don't work at Walmart nor are they affiliated with Walmart in anyway.” Fogleman blames the row on the The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and claims that in many cases the union is “paying their own people or asking people from other organizations to show up and take part in these made for TV demonstrations. Many of them actually work for competitors.”
When pressed whether he was inferring that Our Walmart was an effort by the retailer's revivals to undercut their profits, Fogleman said he would declined to speculate.
As for the UFCW, they say their aim isn't to unionize Walmart's workforce, but that they are helping to underwrite Our Walmart in order to raise the working conditions in the industry overall. While Fogleman contends that Walmart pays wages that are competitive and consistent with the retail industry, as the industry's largest employer, Walmart essentially sets that standard.
The UFCW is also weary of what might happen should Walmart associates unionize, since there would be nothing to prevent Walmart from promptly shutting down a UFCW store and opening a non-union operation across the street with a fresh workforce. Nonetheless, former associates Lucas Handy and Susan Gulick confided that along with getting their jobs back they would actually like to be in a union.
“Walmart claims to have this open door policy,” said Handy. “But the door closes behind you in that back office and it's just you and the manager. If we had a union we'd have someone to take our grievances to. We'd have some protection.”
Thursday's rallies come on the heels of job actions by employees at Burger King, Dairy Queen, McDonald's, Wendy's, and other fast food outlets who went on strike last week for a union and $15 an hour. These rebellions at Walmart and in the fast food industry represent growing discontent among those locked-out of America's supposed economic recovery. Fifty-eight percent of jobs created since the recession began in 2008 pay wages at or just above the legal minimum and funds for the food stamps that these workers depend on are currently on the congressional chopping block.
“The rightwing talks about family values,” said John Cronan, with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, who took part in the Our Walmart rally at Williams's office on Thursday. “Being able to support a family on a living wage. That's family values.”
Cronan has been organizing for a union at Capital Bar and Grille restaurants in New York and Walmart's CEO, William Simon, is on the Board of Directors at Darden, which owns the Capital Grille chain. Cronan, however, says he is motivated to support the Walmart workers in more than “an-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend attitude. He looks at Our Walmart as part of one and the same effort by low-wage to raise themselves up against forces pushing them down.
“It's not the same economy where my father, who didn't have a high school degree, could get a railroad union job and retire this year with a pension,” he said. “It's an economy where you got people getting out of high school or college and going straight into dead-end jobs. It's not only about the money. It's about respect. It's about challenging the mentality of profit over people.”
Fired Walmart associate Susan Gulick agreed. “We want respect and decent pay and we don't want to be rundown. When you see your co-workers, who work full-time shopping at Walmart with food stamps, you know something is wrong, something's got to give.”