Bill Knight – November 15
10:49 am
Wed November 14, 2012

Walmart Workers Fighting Back

Bill Knight
Bill Knight

The strikes were the first successful work stoppages at Walmart in years.

As the world’s largest retailer last month filled aisles with Halloween candy and cheap costumes, workers from coast to coast conducted an effective “trick ‘r treat” job action, and now others are taking the giant retailer to court.

Walmart workers protested low wages, slashed hours and management retaliation last month with a Los Angeles work stoppage that spread to more than a dozen cities, and Illinois employees who a ran a huge warehouse near Joliet shut down the facility before returning to work with back pay and a pledge for no retaliation. The Elwood, Ill., workers belong to the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, which accuses the giant retailer of retaliating against outspoken employees and with wage theft, meaning paying less than legal wages for work actually performed.

Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit, Twanda Burkes et al. vs. Walmart Stores Inc., filed Oct. 29 in U.S. District Court in Chicago accuses the chain and two staffing agencies of requiring temporary workers to show up early, stay late, and work through lunch there.

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman told Dailyfinance.com that the lawsuit is a tactic by unions to get publicity, saying, “We are committed to ensuring that anyone working in our stores – whether they’re employed by Walmart or, in this case, a temporary staffing agency – is treated appropriately and compensated fairly for every hour they work.” (However, in 2008 Walmart paid more than $600 million to settle dozens of lawsuits alleging it deprived workers of wages.)

Recent walkouts by Walmart workers have occurred in the Dallas, Miami, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., areas, according to the group OUR Walmart.

Chicago journalist Curtis Black, editor of Newstips, wrote, “Noted for its low wages, forcing many workers onto Medicaid and food stamps, Walmart has aggressively fought back unionization attempts for 50 years. At its warehouses, workers say, the company uses subcontractors to insulate itself from responsibility for abuses.”

The dozens of strikers who took action against Walmart’s huge Illinois warehouse were employed by RoadLink, an agency contracted by Schneider Logistics, which in turn is hired by Walmart to manage the warehouse – Walmart’s largest distribution center in North America. During the job action, trucks seemed to leave with partial loads and strikers estimated that the shutdown cost Walmart more than $10 million a day. Such a financial impact, along with substantial community support and strikers’ appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, all contributed to the workers’ victory, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ).

Phil Bailey, an Elwood striker who marched back into the warehouse in a WWJ t-shirt, said, “It’s unprecedented. This shows you don’t have to go through a card drive and recognition and negotiate a contract before you can take action. Workers in one subcontractor shut the whole place down.”

The workers won their demands for reinstatement of all who were fired or suspended for on-the-job organizing, plus full back pay for everyone who participated in the three-week strike.

More than 600 people turned out for one rally that not only delivered a letter with more than 100,000 signatures demanding that the corporation improve working conditions and stop retaliating against employees who stand up and speak out for labor rights, but that included acts of civil disobedience.

Few of the recent job actions directly involved a labor union and strikers weren’t necessarily union members. But federal law protects any workers’ “concerted activities” to push for better wages, hours and working conditions.

Organized labor did provide ample resources and other support. Illinois’ WWJ is tied to the United Electrical Workers; California’s Warehouse Workers United is connected to the Change to Win coalition; OUR Walmart is affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers.

The strikes were the first successful work stoppages at Walmart in years, organizers said, and an increasing number of workers and subcontracted employees seem more willing to stand up for their rights.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, director of the grassroots activist group SumOfUs.org, in a statement said, “These workers are sick of toiling in 100-plus-degree heat, they’re sick of poverty wages and, most of all, they’re sick of being ignored by management.”

Some Walmart workers reportedly are planning to walk off the job on Black Friday, the busy shopping day right after Thanksgiving.

Bill.Knight is an award winning journalist whose newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.