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Walmart workers and their allies organize a movement that could ripple through the retail industry

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Workers at Walmart's Richmond store protest what they called their mistreatment by the company.
PHOTO BY KASI FARRAR

"The very first day," she said, "the managers started off yelling and screaming. 'You guys are lazy, the worst crew I ever worked with.' Instead of saying 'get the tool,' it was yelling "go get the goddamn tool!'

Lee was especially angry about comments she saw as racist. One night a young African American worker tied a rope around his waist to move a heavy counter. "The supervisor, an older, Caucasian man, said, 'If it was up to me I would tie it around your neck.'"

The work demands seemed impossible to meet. "You have 20 people doing an amount of work it would take 50 people to finish," said Lee, "and they kept saying 'hurry up, hurry up, you guys are moving too slow.'"

A report issued last month by Making Change at Walmart criticized what it called Walmart's "low-road business model." The report charged that a recent push for increased productivity has meant short staffing and more pressure of the kind Lee described.

Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman denied that the productivity program had led to more pressure on workers, saying rather that technology like self-checkout had freed more associates to help customers. "We staff the stores to meet the needs of our customers," he said.

But Amanda Grenier, who worked at Walmart for seven years and is now on staff at Making Change at Walmart, charged that the company's scheduling shows a "total disregard for associates' wellbeing." When she was an hourly worker supervising others who worked at cash registers, she said, "Some of the women working there had to find daycare, so they asked for morning shifts. There were morning shifts open, but the managers wouldn't work with them. They said the associates had to have 'open availability.' [Walmart says] they support people going to school, but they cut your hours to retaliate if you 'close' hours [to go to classes]."

Fogelman disputed this picture, saying that Walmart's scheduling system is "designed to build associates' schedules around the times they are available." He added that Walmart's "pay structure" is "very competitive" — hourly associates who work full time, at least 34 hours a week, earn an average of $12.54 an hour, and have many opportunities for advancement.

Raymond Bravo, who has been working at the Richmond Walmart store for about 17 months, said he makes $9.85 an hour, which includes an extra $1 for working the late-night shift. "What I'm getting paid is crazy," he commented, adding that he was glad he didn't have to support children on his pay.

But Bravo was more indignant about what he saw as retaliation for wearing an OURWalmart T-shirt to work. After he did that, he said, "My manager was really on my case, assigning me more work than I could do in a night." After Bravo complained, he said, "I got my hours cut to 24 a week."

 

THE RIGHT TO PROTEST

If open protest brings retaliation, why not keep the organizing underground? "The number one mission for OURWalmart," said member Ware, "is to give knowledge to employees." Specifically, "to let other workers know, if there's something wrong on your job, it's not just you, there's a whole group of individuals fighting for you."

The campaign also lets workers know they have a right to organize. On OURWalmart's Facebook page, a Walmart worker recently posted his view that members were crazy to take such risks, adding, "You have no rights — you're not in a union."

An immediate response from a worker-activist explained that, on the contrary, the National Labor Relations Act gives all workers, whether or not they are union members, the right to take "concerted action" to improve their jobs, and bars employers from retaliation or intimidation. OURWalmart has filed dozens of "unfair labor practice" charges against Walmart, including charges on behalf of two fired Bay Area workers.

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