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Learning about the Real Walmart from the Workers’ View

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A couple of weeks ago, at a community meeting with other members of the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, I got to hear some testimony about working conditions at Walmart from a group of women who work at the retail giant’s stores around Los Angeles County. Our alliance is dedicated to making sure that grocery stores have the best impact they can on our city. After Walmart’s announcement that they were expanding into urban markets with smaller-scale grocery stores, we invited some workers to tell us about life as Walmart “Associates.” I will respect their anonymity here, so as not to cause them problems on the job.

I didn’t expect to hear much that was shocking, but what I heard that day threw me for a loop. I couldn’t stop talking about it to my wife when I got home.

As someone who works on food justice and economic issues, I was already aware that wages at Walmart are so low that most employees qualify for federal benefits such as SNAP (Food Stamp program). But what I found appalling was that some of the women had worked for years under the promise of wage increases which never materialized. They moved from department to department, acquiring skills, taking up the slack for other workers who had been laid off, eventually managing a wide variety of departments. And they hardly got any increase in pay over years of time for what they did.

But it wasn’t just the fact they didn’t get raises. The management used underhanded and elementary-school level tricks to keep the women from getting raises. One of the workers was given a cut in pay, then “promoted” and given back her original pay as a “raise.”

The women told stories of how Walmart has high turnover, laying off employees rapidly, while expanding the duties of the remaining employees to cover the work. The work at Walmart isn’t simple either: workers manage each department as though it’s an independent store. That’s a huge amount of responsibility, the equivalent of a high level supervisor, yet the workers were getting wages akin to the lowest entry level worker in most places.

Many, if not most, workers are kept at a reduced number of hours, in spite of experience, in spite of having been promoted, and often, apparently as a form of punishment.

Even more disgusting were stories of cruel games played by the management, just to see how far employees could be pushed. One woman was told she had to change her name badge from the name she had always used for herself her entire life, simply because management didn’t like the sound of her name. The supervisor who ordered this was eventually reprimanded, but apparently stories like this were so common among workers at different Walmarts that the workers suspected it was part of the training of the supervisors.

Nearly all the workers had stories of how they were forced to work after suffering job-related injuries, usually from heavy lifting or pulling large pallets of goods. Supervisors would usually mock, ridicule, or question the integrity of the employee who was hurt. In one instance, a supervisor was berating an employee even as the worker lay on the ground dizzy and feeling so sick she needed to leave.

Over the years I’ve acquired knowledge of many public benefit programs, and had heard that most Walmart employees qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. The store in fact helps new employees learn how to apply for benefits from the government, because Walmart certainly doesn’t want to provide them when the taxpayers could do that.

It’s sickening that as children we are taught, or at least I was, to have the most respect for moms–every mom is like your own mother. And yet here they are, these workers, who all happened to be women, all of them kind, friendly, intelligent, smart mothers, being treated like trash. The workers aren’t unionized–although Walmart workers in other countries are–but they have formed the Organization for Unity and Respect at Walmart. This was the most impressive thing to come out of the meeting, that these women and their co-workers had gotten together to demand the most fundamental of rights: to be treated like a human being and not like an animal.

What was most surprising after all the horror stories is this: The workers loved their jobs.

That’s right! Although one mom eventually lost her kids–taken away by the Department of Children and Family Services due in part to her late night shift at Walmart–they all felt very proud of what they do at Walmart and the fact that they’ve learned so much from their jobs, mastering a wide variety of tasks (although I was a little uneasy hearing that in one instance a worker had to be a “pharmacist” without a license).

The fact that these workers still loved their jobs after all the various abuses shows that there is huge potential for this retail giant to change, and maybe to lead the way in restoring respect to working people in a country obsessed with payoffs for the shareholders. Maybe I’m dreaming, but every dream starts off sounding ridiculous.

If the management of Walmart would take to heart the lessons learned by the automakers last century, that when you treat the workers well they respond manifold. Walmart has the option to become a company that we would be proud to be associated with. There are other issues of course, such as Walmart’s intense ties to Chinese sweatshops. But so much could change just by more people hearing stories such as I heard last week.

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