After working for nearly two years at Walmart in San Leandro, Dominic Ware said he’d witnessed too many co-workers struggle to make ends meet, and had felt disrespected for long enough. A co-worker recruited him to join Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OURWalmart, a national group of Walmart associates organizing for better workplace conditions and pay.
“She couldn’t even pass the pen fast enough,” said Ware. Last October, he participated in the first mass-strike of American workers in Walmart’s history.
In May, Ware joined a hundred others in the longest Walmart workers’ strike yet, lasting from May 29 through June 8, to demand protection for strikes, livable wages, the option for full-time shifts, and respect in the workplace. After two weeks of striking, a legally protected activity for all workers, Ware went back to work. Things were normal at first. But in mid-July, he was fired.
Raymond Bravo, a maintenance associate at the Richmond Walmart, also joined Ware and other OURWalmart members on a caravan of striking workers to demonstrate outside Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas in May.
“I saw the lack of respect and favoritism,” said Bravo. “I wanted to join because I had no voice at Walmart, and I believe we should stand together.”
Like Ware, Bravo returned to the job after Arkansas with little fuss. “My next scheduled day was June 12, and nothing happened,” said Bravo. But two weeks down the line, Walmart began coaching associates for absences, and changing his schedule.
“I knew my days were numbered,” said Bravo. “I had already been disciplined for striking last year, and I’d heard from other associates that their hours were cut. That was kind of fishy.” Roughly two weeks after returning, Bravo was fired.
It appears that Ware and Bravo’s terminations weren’t isolated incidents. Around 60 Walmart associates across the country were disciplined or terminated after participating in the strike, according to OURWalmart. Since termination in retaliation for striking activity is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, both Ware and Bravo plan to embark in legal battles to get their jobs back.
Walmart may rightfully fire an individual employee after he violates the company’s absence policy by missing work, Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman told the Guardian. In Bravo’s case, “the decision has nothing to do with a specific protest or activity of that nature,” said Fogleman. “We have a strict policy against retaliation.”
Fogelman claims the OURWalmart demonstrations were not legitimate strikes, but “made for TV” publicity stunts for the union that has leant support for OURWalmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers. Walmart made a similar claim in response to the October 2012 strikes. The nation’s largest private employer, Walmart employs roughly 1.4 million American workers, all non-unionized.
“Walmart didn’t want to recognize a strike as strike,” said Ware. “But they are playing with people’s lives. Those who are working 45 hours a week, that’s not a lot, but that’s all they have, and if you take that away, they’ll lose everything they have.”
According to a report issued by American Rights at Work, a nonprofit that advocates for democracy in the workplace, OURWalmart received more than 150 accounts of individual incidents of harassment, threats, changes to shifts and hours, and retaliatory discipline, including termination, from workers who participated in the wave of work stoppages and demonstrations that began last October.
Bravo has filed a wrongful termination affidavit with the National Labor Relations Board. “Walmart is pushing the envelope right now,” said Bravo, “but I know that I’ll get my job back.”
But according to John Logan, professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, the law may protect work stoppage and protests but does not necessarily protect low-wage workers like Ware and Bravo from the damages of retaliation.
“In a very large employer like Walmart, in a non-union environment, protections are very weak and penalties for violations are very ineffectual,” said Logan. “In reality, you are only slightly better off than if you have no legal protections at all.”
When asked about the effectiveness of filing a complaint with the labor board, Logan said that process is long and painful, and may accomplish little for the worker in the end. “These cases often move at a glacial speed at the labor board,” said Logan. “Even if they were to get the original position they are legally entitled, in a lot of instances, workers who go back stay for a very short period of time because the working conditions are intolerable, or made to be intolerable.”
“The obvious point is that clearly, the effect on the worker is the same whether or not they were fired for strike or absentee policy,” said Logan. “They lost their job.”