Walmart workers and their allies organize a movement that could ripple through the retail industry
On Nov. 2, a half-hour before the 6am grand re-opening of the newly remodeled Walmart store in Richmond, six workers on the late-night shift donned matching lime-green T-shirts and staged a sit-in next to the Customer Service desk.
"We're tired of mistreatment at work," explained Walmart worker Mario Hammod, "of not being treated with dignity and respect."
Outside, a small group of union members, clergy, and other supporters stood in the dark, holding a huge banner reading "Walmart on strike: End the retaliation."
This small, peaceful protest was a moment in "one of the most exciting labor campaigns this year," according to San Francisco Jobs with Justice coordinator Gordon Mar. "Because it's an example of workers going on the offensive, not just fighting to protect what they have. It's also exciting that workers are taking on the largest corporation in the world."
The national Walmart workers' Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OURWalmart) is not a union, members insist, but simply an organization of workers who want Walmart to improve the pay and working conditions of its low-wage workers, or in Walmart-speak, "associates."
Like participants in the Arab Spring, many Walmart workers across the country have found each other through social media: the OURWalmart Facebook page and Twitter. An organization called Making Change at Walmart, funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), has also hired organizers, including many former Walmart workers, to spread the word.
Organizing mostly under the radar for the last two years, OURWalmart grabbed public attention in September with a strike of 30 workers in Southern California, followed by a one-day national strike Oct. 10 — organizers say workers from 28 stores in 12 states participated. Only a handful of workers in each store have walked off the job so far, but that's how social movements begin, said Kasi Farrar, an organizer with Making Change at Walmart.
Walmart workers and their supporters are planning demonstrations in the Bay Area and across the country at Walmart stores on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. Before that, on Nov. 14, a demonstration in San Leandro is set to protest terminations and the cutting of hours of OURWalmart members, which they see as retaliation for protests.
Dominic Ware, one of 20 Bay Area Walmart workers who participated in the national strike, joined 200 others from around the country Oct. 10 at Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, AK, demanding an end to retaliation against workers who protest company practices. The best thing about the gathering in Bentonville, said Ware, "was seeing how all the people stood up, different races, ages, ethnicities, all coming together with one goal, to make this company right, the way Sam Walton had it, with respect."
OURWalmart members frequently appeal to ideals expressed by Walmart founder Sam Walton. The organization's Declaration of Respect calls on Walmart to "live up to Mr. Sam's promise of 'respect for the individual.'"
Despite pay levels low enough that many Walmart workers rely on food stamps, Ware and many of his co-workers insist that their main goal in organizing is "respect." Other demands include a minimum wage of $13 an hour, affordable health care, freedom of association, and equal opportunity, given that Walmart has been a frequent target of formal complaints and lawsuits over gender and racial discrimination.
"DISREGARD FOR ASSOCIATES' WELLBEING"
Semetra Lee, the single mother of a 10-year-old son and 6-year-old twins, started working the late-night shift at the Richmond Walmart store in August, hired to help with the remodeling.