Wal-Mart workers at several stores strike to protest conditions
By Mark Gruenberg and John Bachtell 7 October 2012
|WASHINGTON - Four groups of Wal-Mart workers, fed up with bad working conditions, company high-handedness and refusal to listen and its low pay, defied the giant retailer and staged separate strikes in mid-September and early October.
|The latest group walked out of Wal-Mart stores in Southern California on Oct. 4, and sought nationwide support through Our Wal-Mart, an organization formed more than a year ago to peacefully press the retailer, from the inside, for improvements in wages, working conditions and respect on the job.
They were preceded by 200 workers at a Florida Wal-Mart on Oct. 1, and by workers at major warehouses handling Wal-Mart goods – but run by subcontractors – in Elwood, Ill., and Mira Loma, Calif., on Sept. 15. Some 17 clergy and community supporters of the 38 Elwood workers were arrested during a peaceful protest on Oct. 3, singing “We Shall Overcome” while being taken away by police in riot gear.
The four strikes, including the one-day walkout by dozens of workers at stores in and around Pico Rivera, Calif., were staged in defiance of Wal-Mart’s record of lousy pay, bad benefits, aggressive labor law-breaking and retaliation against workers – and its “always low prices” that drive other local community stores out of business.
“I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m scared,” Pico Rivera Wal-Mart employee Evelin Cruz told Salon.com about her decision to join the strike there. “But I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you.” Cruz, a department manager, said her bosses “expect the work to be done, without having the people to do the job.”
The Wal-Mart workers are fully aware of the company’s intimidation. “Every time I go into work, I get panic attacks…I’m always wondering what are they going to try to do to me when I come in,” California photo department worker Victoria Martinez said.
At the Hialeah Gardens, Fla., Wal-Mart store, 200 workers – the entire shift – walked out on a Monday morning. News reports said a schedule was posted which cut hours from 40 to nine per week for some workers.
Managers called that an error, but it accompanied cuts in hours for many staffers, and an expectation that workers would be available for shifts 24 hours per day, called in based on computer signals from Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Arkansas. Around 50-60 workers protested outside the store that afternoon, with one holding a hand-made sign saying: "Wal-Mart, we are human, we want respect."
The Elwood, Ill., and Mira Loma, Calif., warehouse workers were forced to strike on Sept. 15. Fifty Mira Loma workers began a days-long march from Riverside to Los Angeles to deliver protest letters to Wal-Mart managers demanding payment of back wages and changes in bad conditions, including no air conditioning in 120-degree interior heat.
The mammoth Elwood facility is the biggest Wal-Mart distribution warehouse in the nation, covering over 2.2 million square feet. The Oct. 1 protest by workers’ supporters brought shipping operations there to a dead halt for several hours.
Police dressed in riot gear arrested the peaceful activists, who responded by singing “We Shall Overcome” while being handcuffed and led away. The action was part of a larger rally and march by hundreds of supporters of 38 warehouse workers. Elwood workers had to walk off the job after they tried presenting a list of demands over pay and working conditions to management – and met hostility and worse.
A company foreman tried to scatter the workers by driving a giant forklift into them. Four workers were fired on the spot and the rest were threatened. When their demands were rejected, the workers were forced to strike.
Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), which is leading the effort to organize the Elwood workers, filed an unfair labor practices complaint on their behalf. It had previously filed charges against Wal-Mart over wage theft. Foundations fund WWJ, contrary to Wal-Mart’s charges of union control.
The independent United Electrical Workers (UE) also supports WWJ, while the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has tried for years to organize Wal-Mart’s more than 1 million U.S. workers, backs Our Wal-Mart. Our Wal-Mart is not a union.
“They treat us like bodies,” said Mike Compton, who considers himself a veteran after working at the Elwood warehouse for three months because of the exceedingly high turnover rate. “They have no regard for our well-being or lives inside or outside of this place. Temperatures get up to 120 degrees and they want to know why we're stopping to get a drink of water. All they talk about is CPH, cartons per hour," he added.
Wal-Mart owns the Elwood warehouse, but contracts its operation to Schneider Logistics. Schneider, in turn, uses subcontractors, making it difficult for workers to sort out just who is responsible for violating their rights at any given moment. The arrangement lets Wal-Mart wash its hands of all wage and safety violations. Roadlink Workforce Solutions is the main temp agency at the Elwood facility.
The same situation with Wal-Mart subcontracting warehouse operations out – and thus avoiding responsibility for workers – exists in California, according to Warehouse Workers United, which is trying to organize the Mira Loma workers. Last year, the California Labor Department started a wage-and-hour case against Wal-Mart.
"There have been six separate lawsuits against six different contractors in this warehouse for nonpayment of wages, nonpayment of overtime, nonpayment of the minimum wage, Leah Friedman of WWJ said of the situation in Elwood.
"There are unsafe working conditions and racial and sexual discrimination and harassment. Wal-Mart needs to take responsibility for what is happening in their warehouses," she added.
Mark Gruenberg writes for Press Associates, Inc., news service. John Bachtell writes for People’s World. Used with permission.