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Worker Activism is Reshaping the World’s Largest Retailer

Walmart workers strike on Black FridayThis past February, Walmart worker Janet Sparks was called in for a meeting with her boss in Baker, Louisiana, where she works as a non-salaried customer service supervisor. Weeks earlier Sparks had spoken up to complain about mistreatment of her co-workers. Yet the management was now accusing her of “creating a hostile work environment.” But at that point Sparks had already found herself center state in a growing labor movement that was ramping up to organize workers inside the world’s largest retailer. She was knowledgeable about her employee rights, and presented her managers with a government document that detailed the rights of non-union workers to organize. After the meeting, her bosses pledged not to discipline her or other co-workers with the same goals.

A large number of Walmart’s 1.5 million workers earn the minimum wage, making them one of the fastest-growing groups of Americans who make so little – despite the fact that they work full time – that they fall below the federal poverty line (the “working poor.”)

Over the past few weeks, “OUR Walmart”, the union-supported association that Sparks had joined, has been staging demonstrations at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas.  “On the store level, people have won all kinds of victories,” said Dan Schlademan, a campaign organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is committed to backing the movement. He enumerates progress they’ve made, which includes undoing write-ups, wrongful termination, unpaid wages or other wage and hour violations.

Most importantly, people are being educated about worker rights through this movement.

On it’s own end, Walmart argued that it has always respected its workers and has worked to resolve such complaints, which makes any such labor movement unnecessary. “We listen to our associates every day,” said Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg. “Every associate in every store has an open door to talk to management in the store, in the region, in the company. If they have a concern, we want to know about it.”

Labor Law

The “OUR Walmart” campaign is just one piece of a much larger union-backed effort to improve working conditions for low wage workers in the fast-food, retail, and warehouse sectors, by educating them of state and federal labor laws, and how these affect their rights. Employment attorneys and workers’ compensation lawyer have joined the efforts by defending the rights of these workers and advocating on behalf of fair pay and safe working conditions.

Many track this shift – and the origins of today’s labor movement – back to changes from 2005, when Walmart’s executive vice president, Susan Chambers, circulated a highly publicized memo advising the company to save money by employing more part-time workers, cutting workers’ hours and slashing health care and other benefits.

When those changes raised alarm among employees and labor rights groups, the OUR Walmart group began to organize workers from around the U.S. to share their experiences; they educated workers about their rights; and they organized several strikes and protests, including last year’s Black Friday walkout. Many analysts claim that retailer’s disappointing sales over the past few years can be traced to those measures to reduce labor costs.

Other analysts feel that the visibility of worker protests and organizing may be changing public (and consumer) perceptions of Walmart, which may hurt the company’s bottom line.

Data from BrandIndex, which tracks public perception of companies and brands, indicates recent controversies including the Mexico bribery scandal, worker fatalities from factory fires in Bangladesh, and the Black Friday strikes from past Thanksgiving — have degrading public opinion of Walmart.

According to a story in the New York Times, since 2007 Walmart has reduced the number of workers from an average of 338 workers per store down to 281 workers per store. Bloomberg News has covered the impact of those cuts, noting both customer and Walmart worker complaints about disorganization in stores, longer waits at cash registers, poor customer service, and thinly-stocked shelves throughout stores.

Despite the many struggles it’s faced over the past few years, Walmart remains enormously profitable, and will be celebrating those profits in the weeks to come with elaborate concerts and parties for its shareholders.

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Emery Reddy