Southern California Wal-Mart workers planned to begin walking off the job at 7:30 AM PST this morning, launching the first multi-store Walmart work stoppage since the retail giant fired twenty workers who’d joined a June walkout. The surprise strike is the latest effort to squeeze the retail giant to address workers’ grievances over wages, scheduling, and alleged retaliation. Strikers and supporters will rally today in Paramount, California; another rally is planned for tomorrow in downtown Los Angeles.
“When the customers come out and join us on this picket line, Wal-Mart will get the message that the customers aren’t happy,” Paramount, California employee Martha Sellers told Salon in a pre-strike interview. “That’s my goal.” Sellers said that sales at her store had suffered because “we are so understaffed that people are just leaving their baskets and walking out, because the lines are so long.”
The group behind today’s strike is OUR Walmart, a non-union workers’ group with close ties to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. Today’s strike follows a one-day October 18 walkout – first reported by Salon - by Hialeah, Florida Wal-Mart employees protesting insufficient hours. Activists said that action was embraced, but not instigated, by OUR Walmart. According to OUR Walmart, the eighty-some strikers secured concrete victories: full forty-hour schedules for workers who wanted them; a manager transferred; 50 cent raises for workers who had been designated on their evaluations for 40 cents; and payment from Wal-Mart for their hours on strike. Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to an inquiry on that account.
While Wal-Mart went five decades without coordinated US strikes, OUR Wal-Mart has mounted a series over the past thirteen months. The largest strike came last November on “Black Friday,” when organizers say 400-some walked off the job; the longest lasted over a week and brought workers in Freedom Ride-inspired caravans to the company’s June shareholder meeting. OUR Walmart has promised another major strike for this year’s “Black Friday,” the high-profile shopping day that follows Thanksgiving.
With this week’s protests, OUR Wal-Mart also seeks to amplify attention to a presentation by Wal-Mart’s US CEO stating that over 475,000 Wal-Mart employees make at least $25,000 a year; as I’ve reported, OUR Walmart has framed that statistic as an implicit admission that pay for most of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million direct US employees falls below $25,000.
Asked about this week’s announced rallies, spokesperson Wal-Mart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed, “Wal-Mart provides associates with more opportunities for career growth and greater economic security for their families than virtually any other company in America. There are, on average, more than 430 promotions a day within Walmart.” Last month the company announced a blitz of visits by executives to announce internal promotions, an effort highlighting the company’s pledge to promote 25,000 employees in three months. Asked about that pledge, Sellers told Salon that the people she saw being brought in for better-paying jobs were “friends of friends” of management, not current entry-level workers. “They are providing promotions, yes,” she said, “but to outsiders.”
Like strikes by fast food workers, the Wal-Mart work stoppages are part of a wave of one-day, non-union “minority strikes” which seek to embarrass corporations and engage co-workers and the public. While the Wal-Mart strikes so far have mobilized no more than 500 of the retail giant’s 1.3 million US employees at a time, UFCW official and key OUR Walmart strategist Dan Schlademan told me in May that “we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.” In September, UFCW President Joe Hansen told Salon it would be “unrealistic” to think “somebody’s going to get 500,000 Wal-Mart workers to walk off their job…But what I think is happening, and I think Wal-Mart hates this as much as anything else, is it’s calling publicity to how they treat workers.”
“I want Wal-Mart to become the company that everyone will be proud to work there,” said Sellers, “and hold their head up and say, ‘Look what Wal-Mart has done: I can now afford to feed my family…I actually have enough money to put ten dollars aside.’ Not to have to borrow ten dollars from a neighbor just so you can eat.”