(This post first appeared on The Nation and is republished with permission.)
Nine fired workers and a current employee were arrested around 2:30 p.m. Thursday after locking arms and sitting in front of the entrance to a Washington, D.C., Walmart office. The planned act of civil disobedience concluded a noon rally at which workers announced a Labor Day deadline for Walmart to raise wages and reinstate workers they allege were fired for their activism. Twenty workers who joined a June strike by the labor group OUR Walmart have since been terminated; another 50-some have been otherwise disciplined by Walmart.
“Hopefully it opens Walmart’s eyes and lets them know that this is just the beginning,” OUR Walmart activist Barbara Collins told The Nation prior to her arrest. If Walmart doesn’t meet the Labor Day deadline, she said yesterday, “then we’re going to give them a lot more actions, a lot stronger actions, a lot bolder ones. And it’ll be across the country.”
Collins was fired by Walmart in June, after protesting fellow strikers’ firings by participating in civil disobedience at the headquarters of Yahoo! CEO and Walmart Board Member Marissa Mayer. As The Nation first reported, this wave of alleged retaliation—the most serious to face OUR Walmart since its founding two years ago—began two weeks after workers concluded a weeklong work stoppage and caravan to the company’s Arkansas shareholder meeting. OUR Walmart is closely tied to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Organizers say hundreds of supporters joined this afternoon’s rally to demand Walmart cease retaliation and offer full-time jobs that pay a minimum of $25,000 a year. Chants included “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” In live video posted online by the campaign, people in suits could be seen stepping over the human chain of seated ex-workers to enter the Walmart office. According to the campaign, arrests took place following three warnings issued over a bullhorn by police; participants in the civil disobedience were individually escorted to a nearby area where they were issued citations for a misdemeanor of blocking a passage, and then released.
The D.C. protest comes as the city’s mayor mulls a veto of a retail living wage bill fiercely opposed by the retail giant. Some marched to the rally from the offices of the federal National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with investigating the workers’ claims of widespread illegal discipline against activists. OUR Walmart has urged the NLRB to seek a federal injunction to more quickly address the alleged retaliation; the NLRB did not respond to a Wednesday request for comment on the case.
In a Wednesday e-mail, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said, “No associates were disciplined for participating in any specific protests.” Rather, he said, “we applied the time and attendance policy to the individual absences in the same way we do for other associates.” He noted that some protesting workers “did not receive any discipline because their absences in their individual circumstances did not trigger the no-fault attendance rules.” Lundberg previously told The Nation that “as a general rule, the law does not protect hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are part of a coordinated union plan.”
Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said that “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”
The fired workers were on Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with congressional staffers and seek sponsors for a bill introduced by Congressman Alan Grayson that would dramatically strengthen the legal remedies available to workers fired for workplace activism. In an August 5 letter, sixteen congressional Democrats criticized the Walmart discipline, urging CEO Mike Duke “to stop all retaliatory actions against employees engaged in protests regarding Walmart’s labor policies.” Walmart’s “tense labour relations” were also cited by the major Dutch pension administrator PGGM in its July 1 announcement that, like some peers, it would cease investing in the company.
While fired Walmart workers were rallying against the company in D.C., U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker was delivering remarks and participating in a panel at an afternoon U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Orlando hosted by Walmart. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning on the alleged retaliation or the administration’s participation in the summit, and has not responded to inquiries from The Nation over the past nine months regarding labor strife at the retail giant.
Asked this month whether the Obama administration should stop praising and appearing with Walmart, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has backed organizing efforts against the company, told The Nation she “would rather, instead of dealing with the specific tactics of the president’s behavior with individual companies, keep calling on the president to say we have to have both a tax policy and an ability for workers to bargain again as a way to get off this low-wage road that the economy’s on. And I’d like to keep pressing on him to lead on the sort of bigger concern than grievance publicly about what he’s doing on individual things.”
Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nation that his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”
OUR Walmart Field Director Andrea Dehlendorf said that in some stores where activists were fired, “there’s really been a chill that’s created, which is clearly why Walmart does this.” However, she said, “We have some stores where people have gotten so angry and so frustrated about it that they’re really stepping up and getting more involved…. And not one person who’ve been fired or disciplined has backed off.”
Barbara Collins said that since being fired, she hasn’t had as much contact with workers at her Placerville, California, store because managers “are putting that fear back into the workers.” “But some of them,” she added, “they really do know that it’s all a bunch of lies.” Collins said OUR Walmart members in her store are “definitely standing stronger, even though management’s intimidating them. They still know that if we stand together and strong, hopefully it will stop.”