On the afternoon before this past Thanksgiving, Walmart worker Vanessa Ferreira went on strike at her St. Cloud, FL store. As news organizations reported at the time, most Walmart shoppers completely overlooked the rather humble occasion of Ferreira’s walkout, which was a protest against the retail chain’s unfair (and sometimes illegal) treatment of its employees. Ferreira was the only worker to walk out that day, which prompted an order from police to leave the grounds.
Then last week, Ferreira was fired.
Ferreira’s supervisor at Walmart cited her “extended breaks” as the premise for her dismissal, but the 59-year-old Ferreira feels that this is a clear case of wrongful termination and workplace discrimination. She claims she was fired because of her activism.
Ferreira had been employed as a cake decorator in the Walmart baked goods section. After more than eight years on the job, she only earned $11.90 per hour (roughly $25,000 per year).
“Walmart does not want you to say anything,” Ferreira said. “They don’t want you to ask questions. They want you to sit there and obey. When you start asking questions, they start retaliating.” The store manager in St. Cloud decline to answer direct questions from employment lawyers and journalists who took interest in the case, and instead referred questions to the Walmart’s press shop. Company spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan stated that Ferreira had logged five hours she hadn’t actually worked in the 12 days prior to her termination — a charge Ferreira denies. Buchanan said stated that this was “a clear violation and abuse of our policies; in fact, at least one other associate in the same store was recently fired for similar abuse of break periods.
Ferreira’s termination comes at a moment of renewed public interest in the question of pay and working conditions at the world’s largest private employer. Facing low wages and no affordable health care or other measurable benefits, hundred of other employees like Ferreira recently participated in a modest sized but high-profile worker strike surrounding Walmart’s Black Friday shopping festivities.
With a black eye from national media coverage of the labor unrest — not to mention reports of empty shelves, an extensive Mexican bribery scandal and manufacturing links to a massive fire in a Bangladesh factory last year that killed hundreds — Walmart has launched an advertising campaign to publicize what it calls “the real Walmart.” Not buying the empty claims in the PR campaign, Ferreira joined OUR Walmart, a group organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union that has been working for years to unionize Walmart stores. In the past month, the group filed unfair labor practice charges with the federal labor board — one of 30 recent charges the group lodged against Walmart — claiming that Ferreira’s firing was workplace retaliation. In the weeks before her termination, Ferreira had been meeting with co-workers about organizing to demand better working conditions, and allegedly her boss recently asked her if she was aware of Walmart’s policy on “solicitation,” then required her to sign a document pledging that she understood the policy. Ferreira said she refused. On May 18 she was given notice that she was being terminated. “I was watching myself because I knew they were watching me,” Ferreira said. “I wanted to know what evidence they had. She said she didn’t have to show me anything,” but the supervisor claimed it was a matter of taking too many breaks.
Characterizing the strikes and demonstrations as union stunts and antics, Walmart has slapped lawsuits on OUR Walmart and its members. The company states that the group has trespassed on Walmart property and disrupted shoppers and employees in the months following last year’s Black Friday events.
Florida Democrat Representative Alan Grayson has gone to bat for low wage workers across the country, stating that “When the largest company in America deploys an army of lawyers to sue defenseless unemployed individuals, that action certainly is intended to bully and intimidate company employees, and prevent them from exercising their rights. Ruthless anti-union bosses used to send in the Pinkertons; now they send in the lawyers.”