BREAKING: Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint

Union-backed groups mount new strikes, announce a potential federal complaint, and promise a big Black Friday

Published November 18, 2013 8:14PM (EST)

Protesters gather outside a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Store for a peaceful demonstration Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Chicago.                                   (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Protesters gather outside a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Store for a peaceful demonstration Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Chicago. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The world’s largest private employer faces escalations on multiple fronts Monday, including strikes by its employees in Ohio and workers who haul its goods in California; media scrutiny on an employee-to-employee charity initiative; and labor groups’ announcements that California Department of Occupational Safety and Health complaints have been filed against two Wal-Mart-contracted warehouses, and the National Labor Relations Board is prepared to issue a complaint against Wal-Mart.

OUR Walmart, the non-union labor group closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, announced on an afternoon conference call that the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with enforcing and interpreting private sector labor law, is ready to issue a complaint against the retail giant. According to OUR Walmart, the complaint – similar to an indictment – would address “threats by managers and the company’s national spokesperson for discouraging workers from striking and for taking illegal disciplinary actions against workers who were on legally protected strikes.” As I’ve reported, a top Wal-Mart spokesperson stated publicly prior to last year’s “Black Friday” strike that “depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences” if workers did not show up to work that day; in the weeks following a longer, smaller June strike, at least 20 participants were fired.

Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to Monday inquiries; a spokesperson told Salon last week that the company had “a strict anti-retaliation policy,” but that “we do enforce attendance policies when they’re broken.” The NLRB did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

“We should not have to seek relief from the labor board to keep our jobs,” Wal-Mart worker Tiffany Beroid told reporters Monday. “But Wal-Mart has aggressively tried to silence us.” She argued the complaint would “provide additional protections for Walmart’s 1.3 million employees.” When the NLRB issues a complaint, the defendant can settle – potentially including commitments to reinstate fired workers and post workplace notices pledging to follow the law – or proceed to a trial before an NLRB administrative law judge. That judge’s decision can be appealed to the NLRB’s five presidentially appointed members, whose decisions in turn can be appealed to federal court.

“When Wal-Mart workers stand up for their rights, for each other, Wal-Mart often responds by retaliating …” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told reporters Monday. “The AFL-CIO has committed the full weight of the labor movement to support these brave, determined Wal-Mart workers, and to end this epidemic.” Trumka, who leads the country’s largest union federation, was joined on the conference call by leaders of groups including Color of Change, Civic Action, and United Students Against Sweatshops, who pledged to support workers’ Black Friday protests the day after Thanksgiving next week. “This year we have a bigger and broader coalition of allies” than participated in last year’s high-profile Black Friday actions, United Food & Commercial Workers Union President Joe Hansen told reporters. Last year, organizers said that 400-plus Wal-Mart workers – backed by tens of thousands of supporters – went on strike on Black Friday, the organization’s largest strike turnout to date. Asked whether the number of Wal-Mart employees striking on this year’s Black Friday would surpass the 2012 total, an OUR Walmart spokesperson told Salon that more information would be released this Thursday.

This afternoon’s NLRB news comes hours before non-union warehouse workers backed by the Change to Win union federation plan to announce the filing of complaints with the Cal-OSHA alleging widespread abuses at two California warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart. At a facility of American Logistics International, workers allege that “There is only one restroom for both genders”; “Emergency exits are often blocked”; and “Workers are constantly exposed to hazards, specifically falling boxes and forklifts driving in the same areas as workers who walk.” At Pacer International, workers’ allegations include “Fire exits are often blocked”; “Forklift drivers routinely drive into the dark trailers and containers while workers are inside, presenting a risk of workers being hit by forklifts”; and “There is a constant propane smell in the facility, resulting in workers feeling dizzy, nauseous and overwhelmed. There is no ventilation in the facility.” While workers like those at ALI and Pacer are not legally employed by Wal-Mart, the retail giant has faced increasing scrutiny over the past year about the prevalence of such alleged abuses in its sprawling domestic and international supply chain.

Monday was also marked by strikes by Wal-Mart retail employees in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. “At Wal-Mart, we don’t get the respect that we feel like we need …” striker Jamaad Reed told Salon. “If we’ve got a problem with a manager or something, and we take it to the store manager, we start getting our hours cut.” Reed added, “I can work to midnight one night and then, the very next day, I’ve got to be at work at 6 in the morning … I might as well get a cot and sleep in the back.” The campaign said a count was not yet available for the number of workers joining Monday’s strikes, which follows work stoppages in Illinois, California, Washington and Florida over the past month. As Salon first reported, port truckers from ALI and another company who haul goods to Wal-Mart from the Port of Los Angeles are mounting their own strikes today.

Wal-Mart made additional news in Ohio Monday for putting out storage bins in an employee-only area of a Canton, Ohio, store, inviting employees to donate food to each other. A sign over the bins -- photographed by an employee, sent to OUR Walmart, and reported Monday by the Plain Dealer -- reads, “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” The worker who took the photo told the Plain Dealer she found it “demoralizing” and “kind of depressing,” and an OUR Walmart organizer urged the company to instead “stand up and give them their 40 hours and a living wage.” A Wal-Mart spokesperson defended the bins to the Plain Dealer as a store-level decision that reflected “the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.”

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka contended that Wal-Mart’s defenses were undercut by the NLRB’s planned action. “This shows that they have been retaliating – an independent agency has now said what they do violates the law on a nationwide basis …” said Trumka. “It shows them to be just like every other law-violating employer … They choose the dollar over their associates.”

By Josh Eidelson

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