While Walmart spends big on a wall-to-wall ad campaign depicting the company as a source of “tremendous career opportunities,” the stakes are rising for dissident workers at the biggest private employer on the planet. Just ask Barbara Collins, a former Walmart employee who worked at the company’s store 2418 in Placerville, east of Sacramento, for eight years.
As of July 8, nine Walmart workers in California, including her and fellow Placerville-based ex-Walmart employees Yvette Brown and Norma Dobbyns, have been fired for speaking out publicly to improve labor conditions at the large retailer, Collins said. The company disputes that version of events, saying it fired the employees due to violating attendance policy or for other reasons, and not because of any “specific protest.”
This chapter in a labor-management conflict heated up when a union-supported group of current and former Walmart employees seeking to improve workplace conditions at the company – the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart – filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the federal National Labor Relations Board against Walmart on May 23. Then, OUR Walmart members across the country went on strike and joined the Ride for Respect caravan to protest at Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., on May 30.
Collins, 37, Brown, 27, Dobbyns, 53, and four of their co-workers at the Placerville store called to announce their absence to management as part of the national action, and began their strike on May 30, when they joined the caravan to Bentonville, Collins said.
To be clear, Walmart workers are at-will employees. They are not members of a labor union with job protections under a collective bargaining agreement with the employer.
Within a month, all three had lost their jobs: Walmart fired Brown and Dobbyns on June 22 and fired Collins on June 29. Due to their termination, the group is ineligible to receive state unemployment insurance.
“None of these associates received discipline without repeated prior feedback, notices, and warnings,” said Kory Lundberg of Walmart via email. “Our decision had nothing to do with a specific protest.”
The company viewed the absence of the OUR Walmart members as a violation of attendance policy.
“Discharges for attendance at Walmart are not rare or limited to a specific group – in the last month more than 1,000 associates nationwide have been discharged for violating our attendance policy,” Lundberg said. The worker-led group uses social media and gets help from two labor unions in a bid to win workplace respect they claim is lacking.
“We want freedom of speech about our working conditions at Walmart,” said Collins, a mother of two, who lives in Placerville.
One condition that OUR Walmart members are trying to change is the company’s practice of cutting the hours of a full-time employee to eight hours a week on short notice, she said. According to Collins, the company schedules hourly employees on three-week intervals. As a full-time Wal-Mart employee, Collins said she did not lose her health care and dental insurance during these 21-day schedule intervals. In fact, paycheck deductions for her insurance stayed the same, while Collins’ take-home pay declined.
Other policies Collins said she would like to see changed are Walmart’s practice of making new employees view anti-OUR Walmart films and pressuring employees not to talk about workplace conditions. According to Collins, Walmart managers try to catch employees in the act of speaking to one another about workplace conditions, and will dish out punishments, including increased workloads.
“The control that management has over associates is not right,” Collins said.
Before she was fired, Brown worked in the fabric and crafts section at the Placerville Walmart for two and a half years. Why did she risk her livelihood to protest what she sees as unjust company policies?
“I want to be respected as a human being and as an American,” Brown said.
Dobbyns is a single mother of six who worked most recently for Walmart as a cashier before termination. She faced joblessness in the strike to protest the company’s policies on employees’ labor rights and free speech.
“OUR Walmart support for each other makes me feel respected while having my back on everything,” said Dobbyns.
The UFCW filled a single nationwide Unfair Labor Practice charge in late June with the NLRB, according to according to Jorge Amaro of the 1.3 million members union. This complaint covers the associate firings at the Placerville Walmart and at other stores around the country.
The UFCW is one union linking up with the OUR Walmart members in part because UFCW’s Sacramento-area members at employers such as Raley’s and Save-Mart have been under pressure for wage and benefits cuts due to the growth of non-union Walmart Supercenters. They are not the only union seeking to help OUR Walmart.
Eric Sunderland, 44, of Sacramento, is a gardener at Sacramento Municipal Utility District and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. In mid-June, his union asked him to work on the OUR Walmart campaign at the Walmart Supercenters on Florin Road in Sacramento, and other locations in the capital region. Sunderland agreed. His summer-long involvement with the OUR Walmart campaign includes speaking with customers on the outside.
“We encourage community members to speak to Walmart management about its intimidation of workers and retaliation against them,” Sunderland said. The campaign is also reaching out to associates inside the store.
“We are also trying to seek out a leader in each store to organize their fellow associates into OUR Walmart,” Sunderland said.
Amaro of the UFCW said that while the next steps for OUR Walmart were not clear, the organization would continue to step up its public outreach.
“While OUR Walmart is still ferreting out the next strategic steps, there is no backing down from organizing and speaking out,” said Amaro.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013
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