November, 2013 was not a good month to be a Walmart corporate executive.
The headaches for the nation’s largest employer of low-wage workers began November 18, when the National Labor Relations Board found that Walmart illegally threatened, disciplined and fired employees over last year’s Black Friday strikes and protests. The finding was the first step in an NLRB complaint asserting that the retail giant violated workers’ rights.
The Black Friday protests have been a driving force behind the core demand by Walmart employees that the company raise the annual earnings for sales associates above the federal poverty line.
That NLRB bombshell soon snowballed into a public relations disaster when, on the same day, news broke that a Canton, Ohio Walmart store had instituted a Thanksgiving food drive on behalf of store employees unable to afford a holiday meal. The Canton story was subsequently credited with reigniting the congressional fight for the first increase in the national $7.25-per-hour minimum wage since 2007.
For a list of Black Friday actions planned nearest you, go to http://blackfridayprotests.org/
This Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, tens of millions of Americans will travel to Walmart stores to look for holiday discounts on computers, toys and cell phones as well as to buy groceries and basic household items. But at more than 1,500 of Walmart’s 4,000 stores, shoppers will be greeted by Walmart employees handing out leaflets and holding picket signs — “Walmart: Stop Bullying, Stop Firing, Start Paying” and “We’re Drawing a Line at the Poverty Line: $25,000/year” — protesting the company’s abusive labor practices, including poverty-level wages, stingy benefits and irregular work schedules that make it impossible for their families to make ends meet.
The Black Friday rallies and demonstrations represent a dramatic escalation of the growing protest movement among employees of America’s largest private employer. But they also represent the vanguard of a sharp challenge to the nation’s widening economic divide and the declining standard of living among the majority of Americans.
This Thanksgiving, Walmart decided to show its workers that it’s concerned for their families. First, the retailer required that employees work not only on Black Friday, but also Thanksgiving night this year as, once more, it plans to start its Black Friday sale Thursday evening. Second, Walmart knew that because its workers make such low wages and are often on food stamps, the company decided to collect canned food for them.
Yes, the food box scandal that you’ve read in the news over the past few days is true. Walmart workers have been scraping together food donations for – themselves! Even The Colbert Report covered the disgrace. All of this comes on the heels of Walmart workers having to strike due to retaliation for speaking out against low pay ($8.81 an hour!), insufficient hours and unaffordable health care.
On December 5, as part of its 20th anniversary celebration, the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy will honor OUR Walmart, an organization determined to transform conditions at the world’s largest retailer. Frying Pan News recently asked Walmart employee Martha Sellers, who has worked at the company’s Paramount store for 10 years, to reflect on her role in one of the most ambitious social justice efforts of our time.
Frying Pan News: If you could sit down for a one-on-one conversation with Walmart CEO Mike Duke, what would you say?
Martha Sellers: Explain to me why you cannot afford to pay us a living wage when it is proven you make mega bucks. Why?
You spend your money on all these things but your associates. Why?
You spend money on PR and opening more stores when the stores that are already open are not doing well.
On Sunday, November 3, the Los Angeles Times ran a 429-word story, “Wal-Mart kicks off Christmas way early, helping to kill Black Friday,” on the retail giant’s plan to entice customers to do their Christmas shopping early by marking down prices weeks before the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving bargains. Providing Walmart with tens of thousands of dollars of free advertising, the story reported that “Deals include 36 percent savings on a JVC 42-inch LED television and 51 percent savings on a 10-inch Xelio tablet — at $299 for the TV and $49 for the tablet, those are the lowest tags Wal-Mart has ever put on those products.” Surely this is the kind of “news” that a Walmart PR executive drools over.
In contrast, the Times’ coverage of last Thursday’s anti-Walmart protest — one of the largest local civil disobedience actions in the company’s history — garnered a puny 163-word story,
Apparently Walmart, the country’s largest — and, some say, stingiest — private employer thought its troubles at the new Chinatown grocery center were over once it opened for business in September. That, however, was corporate wishful thinking in serious need of a cleanup in aisle three. Today, November 7, the community coalition that opposed Walmart’s original entry into the historic neighborhood will be demonstrating against the mega-chain’s continued abuse of its low-paid employees. The event will culminate with the arrest of 100 men and women in front of the store.
Their immediate goal is to draw attention to Walmart’s strategy of maximizing profits by scheduling its workers for the minimum number of hours possible and by encouraging them to apply for food stamps and other tax-funded programs to supplement their meager paychecks. (Not to mention firing dissident workers.) But organizers also hope to build momentum for nationwide protests against Walmart scheduled to take place in three weeks.
Today Walmart opened its newest supermarket, a 33,000-square-foot “grocery store” on the Chinatown corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues. It’s a stone’s throw from Our Lady of the Angels’ stained-glass windows and within shouting distance of dozens of small local businesses now threatened with extinction. Local community groups had fought Walmart’s arrival as a corporate intrusion into the historic neighborhood – the store represents the retail giant’s deepest penetration into urban Los Angeles yet.
For now the new store’s critics and business competitors await the worst.
“It’s just sad for a small economy like Chinatown’s to have a large national chain whose money is going out of state and not staying in the community,” says Steven Y. Wong, interim executive director of Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum. Wong, who says that his comments are his private opinions and not those of the museum, adds that the store “drastically changes the character of the neighborhood and will have a long-term,
September’s shaping up to be another tough month for Martha Sellers. The Walmart cashier cleared $732 on her last twice-monthly paycheck but hasn’t paid this month’s $700 rent on her place in Bellflower. When she does, she’ll have to decide how much of the remaining $32 will be divided between food and gas to get her to the job she’s held for the past 10 years.
“I am just always broke, always late on things,” Sellers says. “Thank goodness I have a nice landlord who understands.”
Sellers’ employer, however, is not so understanding. Sellers makes $13 an hour, which on paper doesn’t look too bad when compared to many other Walmart workers’ salaries, which tend to run less than $9 an hour. The problem is that the retail giant is continually cutting her hours, so that the $13 doesn’t tell the whole story.
“When I first started I worked 35,
My friend Allison is a United Methodist minister. Her husband, Andy, pastors a United Church of Christ congregation. Both serve churches in Pasadena. Both of them have been involved in advocacy for the workers at Walmart.
Allison’s father, Alan, is also a United Methodist minister and an old friend of mine who lives in Honolulu, where he took the lead to start a faith-based advocacy organization that has made a strong impact on the city. So Alan has earned some progressive credibility. Andy told me that the last time he visited his in-laws in Honolulu, Alan and he were on their way back home from a golfing excursion, when Alan announced he was going “to pick up a few things at Walmart.”
Andy was aghast and said, “You shop at Walmart?”
“Well, of course I do,” said Alan, “And don’t tell me that Allison doesn’t!”
“No, she never shops there!”
“Really?” said Alan.
Retail giant Walmart suffered a setback in Los Angeles Superior Court Wednesday when Judge Allan J. Goodman ruled that Burbank’s city government improperly greenlighted Walmart’s plans to put a store in the sprawling Empire Center shopping complex.
Goodman, according to the Burbank Leader, “citing street improvements more than a dozen years overdue and a flawed environmental impact report, [said] that the city of Burbank must rescind building permits it issued to Walmart.”
Walmart had planned to open an outlet (which would include a grocery store) in an old Great Indoors space next year, but three Burbank residents filed a suit to block that plan. (The Empire Center, which sits on former Lockheed property, already includes a Target and Lowe’s, and a Costco is located adjacent to the center.)
City News Service reported that the plaintiffs contended “that having a Walmart at the site would violate a zoning law banning grocery stores in the center.
Dear Walmart Management,
I am the pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa, California. A few months ago, on June 25, 2013, along with six fellow pastors from around the nation, I visited the Lakewood Walmart with the hope of discussing the retaliations that have taken place nationwide following a worker strike and demonstration in Bentonville, Arkansas. We came to beseech you to reinstate Jovani Gomez, an associate of the Lakewood Walmart who we believe was fired unjustly following his participation in that action.
We were unable to discuss Mr. Gomez’s case, or any of the firings or retaliations. We were hardly able to discuss anything at all. Instead, we were met inside the store just a few feet from the entrance by one of the store’s managers, who made it clear that we were not welcome inside Walmart (he actually stated as much). Incredibly, this manager then called the police on seven peaceful pastors who simply wished to discuss Walmart’s recent actions toward their employees.
(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,
Americans believe in speaking up when something is wrong and working together to improve their lives. The freedom of speech and freedom of association are core American values and basic rights enshrined by our nation’s Constitution. Yet while our basic rights as Americans are protected under the law, Walmart doesn’t think these laws apply to them.
In recent weeks, Walmart has escalated its illegal campaign of punishing workers who exercise their right to come together and speak out for change. In attempting to silence those workers who speak out, the company has fired or disciplined more than 60 workers.
The recent string of firings comes on the heels of last month’s protest in front of Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. In late May, members of OUR Walmart held a nationwide strike and Ride for Respect caravan protesting Walmart’s unfair labor practices (ULP), which took them on a bus ride from Southern California to Bentonville,
Walmart’s expansion strategy for Los Angeles and other urban areas has been to avoid public oversight by choosing real estate that doesn’t require public review – and, where possible, to secure public subsidies, often with little public scrutiny.
This is exactly what happened in both Covina and Cathedral City. In 1993, Walmart negotiated an intricate deal with the City of Covina’s redevelopment agency that resulted in the company making a tidy profit of $4.1 million. Walmart made a $10.8 million loan to the CRA to purchase several plots of land for the corporation, which was then sold back to Walmart at the discounted price of $6.7 million. In this way, Walmart effectively received a $4.1 million subsidy from taxpayers to develop the land. Similarly, in 1995, Walmart was reimbursed by Cathedral City for $850,000 for “infrastructure improvements,” but on the day that taxpayers recovered this subsidy,
(Note from Warehouse Workers United: Please take action now — workers like Javier, whose blog appears below, should not be fired with impunity. We will deliver this petition to Walmart today, April 29, 1 p.m., PDT.)
One month ago my son Alex was born. Yesterday I was fired from my job as a forklift driver at a warehouse where we move 100 percent Walmart merchandise.
I am outspoken. I defend my coworkers. I alert management about broken and unsafe equipment. I teach my coworkers about their rights, like what minimum wage is and what they should do when they are injured on the job.
I have been a target of management for a while. They watch everything I do, but it’s not my nature to be silent or scared. I know when I am right. Last year I went on strike to protest the retaliation my coworkers experienced when they spoke to the media and the public about the dirty water (if we had any water at all) that we were given to drink,
Walmart might have viewed their plans to open in an existing building in Los Angeles Chinatown as a bullet-proof strategy. The retail giant would open its new store in the Grand Plaza, an existing building, that unlike new construction, would allow the retailer to proceed without a public hearing.
As the company worked on its renovation plans, which started last year, Aiha Nguyen at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and community members dug through reams of city documents.
They realized the retailer and city officials needed something central to the democratic process — a public hearing for neighborhood residents to provide feedback about the store in the Grand Plaza building.
The Grand Plaza had received about $7 million in subsidies years ago, Nguyen said, adding that a hearing and environmental requirements from a city-approved Chinatown Redevelopment Plan still apply to any new tenant.
That requirement is serving as the basis for the April 4 lawsuit that could block Walmart from opening in 30,000 square feet of space in the downtown area.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and other community groups took legal action against the proposed Chinatown Walmart today by filing a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. The lawsuit challenges the process by which the building permits were issued.
The plaintiffs allege that the Department of Building and Safety violated city and state laws which require public approval of the permits by the Community Redevelopment Agency/LA board. Eighty Chinatown residents, Walmart workers and community activists rallied the same day to adopt principles for all development in Chinatown and demand that the community’s voice be heard.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, with the support of LAANE and Chinatown small businesses, filed multiple appeals against the permits when the store was first proposed in February 2012. The appeals asserted that the permits received inadequate review and were erroneously issued,
For a list of today’s Walmart protest actions, see our Guide to Black Friday Strikes.
Talk about your perfect storm. Walmart, which in recent years has been raising the danger level for shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, has now created a new attractive nuisance that’s being called Gray Thursday. This is when Walmart stores open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, ostensibly to alleviate security and safety pressures on Black Friday, the traditional pre-dawn running of the bulls – er, shoppers – down the stores’ aisles in search of cut-rate prices.
The safety rationale of opening a store six or eight hours ahead of Black Friday is highly debatable; what’s not disputed is that Walmart is ordering in armies of its underpaid employees to work on a night they have traditionally enjoyed as a holiday. But the only tradition this company respects is that of making money on the backs of its mistreated “associates” – workers who are only able to live paycheck to paycheck with the help of food stamps and other government-provided poverty entitlements.