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Low Prices, Low Wages

National organization leads employee protests and strikes against Walmart

By John Lasker · November 20th, 2012 · News
news1Illustration: Rebecca Sylvester

If you’re planning on buying a flat-screen at Walmart this Black Friday, you might just witness a flash mob by fed-up Walmart employees who are calling for higher wages and greater respect for the 1.3 million associates that work in the U.S.

The Organization United For Respect, also known as OUR Walmart or simply OUR, has called for 1,000 protests and strikes nationwide on Black Friday. But OUR’s national office told CityBeat it’s not aware of any Cincinnati-area Walmart associates who may strike on the global retail giant’s most important day of the year.

OUR Walmart is no ordinary group of organized workers. It is historic because it’s the first organization strictly made up of current and former Walmart employees. According to sources, there are several thousand dues-paying members. And what makes OUR significant is that it has convinced Walmart associates to strike and in some cases flash mob stores. The first wave of protests took place in October in Los Angeles, Dallas and 10 other cities.

Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., told CityBeat that OUR is financed by the United Food and Commercial Union (UFCW), something the union readily admits to. Walmart says the UFCW has financial and political motives, considering the tremendous number of workers who could be unionized.

Since that first wave of strikes, OUR has focused on Black Friday as the best target to show the retail giant that Walmart workers, mainly those working hourly, deserve a living wage and greater benefits. But OUR seeks a greater concession: more respect. 

CityBeat was unable to find any regional members of OUR who might be planning to strike, but a small group from Occupy Cincinnati is working with the national OUR office to at least let area Walmart associates know that OUR is urging them to stand up and take some type of action.

Les Courtney is a 29-year-old from Alexandria, Ky., who works as a senior account rep for a rental company. He’s also an activist and an original member of Occupy Cincinnati. Three weeks ago he decided he would gather up some other activists, drive to local Walmarts on the weekends and pass out literature that urges customers and associates to protest Walmart’s low wages and overall lack of respect for its hourly employees.

So far, each Walmart Courtney’s crew has visited has called the police.

“Generally we left before they showed up so they wouldn’t follow us to the next Walmart,” he says.

He was first inspired by an anti-Walmart group in Dayton. He soon heard of what OUR was trying to do for Black Friday and he reached out to its leaders. OUR’s national office urged him to move forward with his plans. Courtney says not only does Walmart screw over its associates, but Ohio taxpayers are also getting slapped in the face.

“If you look into Walmart and what actually has been going on, the facts are frightening. In the state of Ohio alone, 15,000 Walmart employees are on Medicaid. Ohio taxpayers alone spend $67 million a year on food stamps and Medicaid,” he said, citing figures purported by State Rep. Robert Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat.

However, Hagan’s numbers were challenged by PoltiFact Ohio, which stated his “formulas produced an inexact figure to quantify the annual amount of public assistance Walmart receives.” But Politifact Ohio did state “it is clear Ohio taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart’s healthcare costs.”

But as Black Friday hits, it is still not clear whether area Walmart associates will form any picket lines whatsoever.

Courtney says he has not met any OUR members during his weekend protests. And whether employees will protest, he said, “That I don’t know of.” CityBeat’s call to the UFCW main office in Washington, D.C., to ask if it could find a regional OUR member who had pledged to strike was not returned by deadline.

In other major cities, though, OUR has taken a foothold.

Preston Johnson, a twentysomething from the Seattle area who works third shift for Walmart as an overnight support manager, joined OUR over a year ago after dealing “with my fair share of unfair treatment.” He is striking on Black Friday outside his store.

“Like many of the associates who are standing up, I was able to stand up for some of the things that are wrong and correct those wrongs,” he says. “I am trying to convince many of my associates to walk out. I know they are scared of retaliation, but I will show them as being a manager it is OK to stand up against unfair labor practices in our stores. We want to end the retaliation. We want to end unfair scheduling [40 hours one week, 8 the next], the low pay. But most of all, we want respect.”

OUR says retaliation against most of its national members is in full season — terminations, suspensions, moving people to night shift, manager hell. But Johnson doesn’t fear losing his job because OUR has turned to the National Labor Relations Board for protection. Just like union workers, non-union workers cannot be disciplined for walking off the job when protesting conditions that fall under federal Unfair Labor Practices.

Patrick J. O’Neill, the director of organizing for the UFCW, says as the holidays near, dissent is brewing in every Walmart, especially those where the workers are aware of their rights.

“The workers are taking this very seriously,” he says. “The workers are fearful, they’re scared. Because at the same time Walmart is retaliating against them for being active, for organizing. But instead of the workers crawling under the table and being scared, they’re saying, ‘Screw you.’ ”

On the other side of this labor struggle, Walmart is giving the same bah-humbug answers, boasting how Walmart has been opening on Thanksgiving for years and that OUR’s opinions only represent a handful of their workers.

“I just want to re-emphasize the fact that most of our stores operate 24 hours and have been open on Thanksgiving since 1988,” Steve Restivo, a spokesman for Walmart told CityBeat. “Recently, there have been a very small number of associates raising concerns about their jobs. While the opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of the more than 1.3 million Walmart associates in the U.S.”  ©



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