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October 2012, Week 2

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Tue, 9 Oct 2012 21:18:02 -0400
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Walmart Strikes Spread to more States
The first-ever walksouts by warehouse workers
and store employees are a game-changer
By JOSH EIDELSON
Oct. 9, 2012
http://www.salon.com/2012/10/09/walmart_strikes_spread_to_more_states/

For the second time in five days - and also the second
time in Walmart's five decades - workers at multiple
U.S. Walmart stores are on strike. This morning,
workers walked off the job at stores in Dallas, Texas;
Miami, Florida; Seattle, Washington; Laurel, Maryland;
and Northern, Central, and Southern California. No end
date has been announced; some plan to remain on strike
at least through tomorrow, when they'll join other
Walmart workers for a demonstration outside the
company's annual investor meeting in Bentonville,
Arkansas. Today's is the latest in a wave of Walmart
supply chain strikes without precedent in the United
States: From shrimp workers in Louisiana, to warehouse
workers in California and Illinois, to Walmart store
employees in five states. "A lot of associates, we have
to use somewhat of a buddy system," Dallas worker Colby
Harris said last night. "We loan each other money
during non-paycheck weeks just to make it through to
the next week when we get paid. Because we don't have
enough money after paying bills to even eat lunch."
Harris, who's now on strike, said that after three
years at Walmart, he makes $8.90 an hour in the produce
department, and workers at his store have faced
"constant retaliation" for speaking up.

On Thursday, as first reported at Salon, southern
California Walmart store workers staged a day-long
walkout of their own. Organizers say over sixty workers
from nine stores signed in as on strike. About thirty
of them were from the same store in Pico Rivera, where
strikers and supporters rallied with labor leaders,
clergy and politicians. "I'm still thrilled about what
happened," said Harris, who flew in for last week's
walkout. "And it's given me a lot more energy and a lot
more drive." Other workers were visiting from further
away than Texas: When the striking workers returned to
work Friday morning, international Walmart workers
marched into their nine stores with them, carrying
their own countries' flags.

Reached by email last night, Walmart spokesperson Dan
Fogleman said the company "has some of the best jobs in
the retail industry - good pay, affordable benefits and
the chance for advancement." Asked about last week's
walkout, he said, "There is nothing new, nor historic,
about the fact that labor unions want to organize
Walmart. Their rally was just the latest publicity
stunt by [the United Food & Commercial Workers union]
to seek media attention in order to further its
political agenda and financial objectives." Fogleman
said that Walmart "had a few people go out to join the
rally - very few when you consider the more than 12,000
people we employ in LA County ... This event was not a
factor."

Both Thursday's strike and today's were spearheaded by
OUR Walmart, a year-old organization of Walmart workers
backed by UFCW. The group is calling for improved
staffing and benefits as well as an end to alleged
retaliation against its members. Though closely tied to
the UFCW, OUR Walmart isn't identifying itself as a
union or calling for union recognition from the
famously anti-labor company. UFCW; SEIU, the service
employees union; and ACORN supported a different
non-union Walmart workers association in 2005, so the
concept isn't new. But the strikes are.

Before these work stoppages, "the other stuff had been
so predictable from Walmart's point of view," Columbia
University political scientist Dorian Warren said
yesterday. They've always had activists coming to
Bentonville. They've never had a disruption in their
supply chain." Warren, who's co-writing a book on
Walmart, said the strikes by warehouse workers and
store employees are a game-changer: "There was
'Before,' and there was 'After,' and we just crossed
that line."

Like last week's, OUR Walmart is describing today's
strike as a protest against retaliation. In July
interviews with Salon, OUR Walmart activists alleged
that Walmart illegally punished them for standing up.
OUR Walmart has since filed dozens of Unfair Labor
Practice charges against Walmart with the National
Labor Relations Board. OUR Walmart alleges that the
company has tried to suppress employees' activism
through illegal tactics, such as threatening workers,
and legal ones, such as holding mandatory meetings to
bash OUR Walmart. In interviews with Salon, Walmart's
Fogleman denied the threats and retaliation, but not
the mandatory meetings.

Those retaliation charges also affect the riskiness of
the strike. Labor law generally recognizes non-union
workers' right to strike without being punished for it.
But it also recognizes employers' right to "permanently
replace" those striking workers, preventing them from
coming back to work (if that seems not to make sense,
that's because it doesn't). If the government agrees
with OUR Walmart that the strikers are motivated by
alleged crimes by management, then it would be illegal
for Walmart to "permanently replace" them.

Asked yesterday whether any workers would be penalized
for missing their shifts on Thursday, Fogleman emailed,
"The law allows workers to do this, so long as it is
done in a peaceful way." But OUR Walmart activists say
that when it comes to Walmart, legal protections are
little comfort. Harris gave the example of a co-worker
who was fired, ostensibly for "stealing time,"
immediately after a lunch break conversation with
Harris about getting involved in OUR Walmart. He said
management was standing nearby throughout the
conversation.

Professor Warren predicted that public relations
concerns would be "infinitely more important" than the
law in dictating Walmart's response to strikes. Given
that retaliation against strikers is more likely to
draw attention, said Warren, "the gamble is, it could
either send a signal that if anybody else tries this
you're going to get fired. Or it could actually end up
pissing off more workers who would then be willing to
take collective action. So that's actually their
dilemma right now, because their normal response is
just retaliation, to fire workers."

Dallas store workers are walking off the job just as
three dozen Illinois distribution center workers return
to work. Like the eight C.J.'s Seafood workers who
struck in June and the 30 California warehouse workers
who struck in September, the Elwood, Ill., workers
aren't legally employed by Walmart, but they're moving
goods for the retail giant. "Walmart owns the
facility," freight handler Phillip Bailey said
yesterday. "They decide exactly what goes on there ...
the whole thing is a squeeze that ends up squeezing the
workers the most ... the conditions all stem from
Walmart." (As Salon has reported, some experts agree.)
Bailey said he and other workers were fired for their
role in presenting a petition addressing issues of
safety and wage theft.

A rally and civil disobedience action in support of the
workers last Monday temporarily shut down the Elwood
distribution center, Walmart's largest in the United
States. The three-week Elwood strike against the
Walmart subcontractor RoadLink was organized by the
Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, which is backed
by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers
union (UE). According to Leah Fried, a UE staffer
working with the workers, RoadLink has agreed to
rescind all of its allegedly retaliatory discipline -
including the firing of Bailey and three others - and,
in a rare move, to pay the strikers full wages for the
time they were on strike.

Bailey, said that victory holds a lesson for other
workers in the Walmart supply chain: "Sometimes, if you
stand up and stick together, you win."

What's next? OUR Walmart has promised a major
announcement tomorrow regarding future actions.
Meanwhile, there's more organizing afoot. Two weeks
ago, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services issued visas
to three workers who were leaders in the June CJ's
Seafood strike, following approval from the Justice
Department on the grounds that they were witnesses or
victims to workplace crimes. According to National
Guestworker Alliance Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz,
those workers plan to organize other guest workers in
Walmart's supply chain to confront the company.

Last week's strike also took place as representatives
of the global union federation UNI were in town to
launch a new Walmart Global Union Alliance. "In
Argentina, we have a union, so we're able to have that
strength that doesn't exist here," Marta Miranda, a
three-year Walmart greeter turned full-time union
delegate, told Salon Friday in Spanish. Miranda, who
was visiting as part of the UNI delegation, said that
when she returns to Argentina, she'll tell her
co-workers that "the sleeping giant is waking up."

Head of UNI Commerce Alke Boessiger said Friday to
expect the new global alliance to coordinate "joint
actions" in the coming months. Boessiger emphasized
that while many countries have laws that are more
pro-union than the U.S.,  "Walmart will do anything to
avoid unions" anywhere. She added that Walmart workers
abroad understand that supporting U.S. workers is
necessary for the sake of "making sure that this model
that the company has developed in the U.S. is not being
exported." Could those joint actions include
multi-country strikes? "I wouldn't exclude it," she
said.

"We're going to do whatever it takes in order to get
this change to happen," Harris said hours before the
start of today's strike. "If it costs me my job, then
I'm fine with that at this point. That's how bad it is
... it's a small price to pay for global change."

Josh Eidelson is a freelance journalist and a
contributor at The American Prospect and In These
Times. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he
worked as a union organizer for five years.

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