Strikes at Walmart Stores, Warehouses Spread to 12 States: Is the Retail Giant in Trouble?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Historic labor protests against the nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, are expanding to 28 stores in 12 states. Organizers are describing the actions as the first retail worker strike in Wal-Mart’s 50-year history. The strike began last week in Los Angeles and has spread to stores in Dallas; Seattle; the San Francisco Bay Area; Miami; the Washington, D.C., area; Sacramento; Chicago; and Orlando.
Wal-Mart workers are not unionized and have long complained of poor working conditions and inadequate wages. According to organizers, employees are protesting company attempts to, quote, "silence and retaliate against workers for speaking out for improvements on the job." This is Wal-Mart associate Carlton Smith speaking in June at Wal-Mart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas.
CARLTON SMITH: Last year, you made a commitment to us that there would be no retaliation for associates who choose to organize together to help Wal-Mart better, but we continue to experience retaliation against associates who speak out for change.
AMY GOODMAN: Some striking Wal-Mart associates plan to protest again today at a Wal-Mart annual investor meeting at its headquarters in Bentonville. Wal-Mart did not respond to Democracy Now!’s request for comment.
To find out more about the significance of this strike, we go first to Bentonville to talk to Mike Compton, a Wal-Mart warehouse employee in Elwood, Illinois. And in New York, we’re joined by Josh Eidelson, a contributing writer for Salon and In These Times. He broke the story of the Wal-Mart store strikes last week. His most recent piece for Salon is called "Walmart Strikes Spread to More States."
Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Josh in New York. Can you set the stage for us? What is happening all over this country?
JOSH EIDELSON: Thanks, Amy.
So, yesterday, when Wal-Mart store workers at multiple stores walked off the job, that was the first—the second time in five days. It was also the second time in 50 years of Wal-Mart that we’ve seen multiple U.S. store workers going out on strike together. It signifies that we’re in a new wave in this multi-decade struggle between U.S. labor and the world’s largest private employer. And it’s a wave that started, in many ways, this summer in June, when we saw eight workers go out on strike at a Wal-Mart supplier, CJ’s Seafood. It continued last month when workers in Wal-Mart’s supply chain, who get squeezed by Wal-Mart’s budget even though on paper they work for a contractor, went out on strike in California and then in Illinois. And it escalated last week and again yesterday with a combined 150 Wal-Mart store workers taking this unprecedented action.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring Mike Compton into the conversation. Mike Compton, you are a Wal-Mart employee. And at the moment, you’re in Bentonville, Arkansas. Can you explain what it is that you’re intending to do in Bentonville and talk a little bit about your experience working for Wal-Mart?
MIKE COMPTON: You know, I’m in Bentonville to support, you know, everybody here, the OUR Walmart organization. We’re going to have some actions, I know, at a hotel that some of the executives are staying at; I think some of the stores. I haven’t got the full schedule.
You know, I work in a Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois. The conditions are terrible—a lot of safety issues. We have broken equipment that was not getting repaired. They just—they push us to work at a rate that makes it even more unsafe. You know, we finally just had enough, and we started to organize. We started a petition, just asking for some basic rights. And our managers refused to take it. So, that was kind of the final straw. We decided that was it, and we walked out that day.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike, what has been the response of Wal-Mart?
MIKE COMPTON: You know, us directly have not really had a direct response from Wal-Mart. You know, they hide behind these temp agencies that they put in the warehouses. There’s anywhere from, I don’t know, five to maybe eight different temp agencies. And that—you know, that was one of the things that we were asking for was more job security. We don’t know day to day if we have a job.
Indirectly, now that we are back in the warehouse, we’re seeing some improvements. I mean, they’ve got a long way to go, but they’ve installed some massive ceiling fans to, you know, get some air movement in there. They’ve made safety equipment a little—a little more readily available for us. We have been offered shin—or given shin guards now, that we’ve been asking for for months. So, you know, we’re starting to see a little bit of—some improvements.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike, can you describe the difference between warehouse working, when you work in the warehouse, and working in the stores? And can you describe what happened when you first asked, for example, for dust masks?
MIKE COMPTON: I’m sorry; I’m losing audio.
AMY GOODMAN: I was just asking you if you could describe what happened when you first asked for dust masks, and the difference between working in the stores and working in the warehouses, where you work.
MIKE COMPTON: You know, I have never really done the retail end. We have a big problem with dust. You know, all our containers that we unload come from China, and they’re just filled with black dust. It’s horrible, breathing the stuff in all day, you know, and we’d have to ask seven, eight times to get a dust mask. We’d just be pointed in different directions, to a different manager, to a different department. And half the time we’d walk away empty-handed at the end of it anyway. We’ve actually had trailers that were labeled "defumigated in Mexico." We don’t know why. People have had trouble breathing in the trailers. You know, dust—something as simple and as cheap as a dust mask should just be readily available to anyone, in my opinion, especially a company as wealthy as Wal-Mart.
AMY GOODMAN: And it wasn’t? They weren’t allowing you to wear—I mean, they weren’t giving you dust masks?
MIKE COMPTON: A lot of times they were not. And when you did get them, it wasn’t a simple task. It was tracking them down, seeing who had them at the time. And, you know, sometimes we were just flat-out told that they were out of them, they didn’t have any. Same with—more often than that was with the shin guards. They were always—always seemed to be out of them when somebody asked for a pair.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Josh Eidelson, can you explain how this protest grew? It started last week in Los Angeles, and now it’s spread to 12 states. Can you explain what kind of organizing was involved in making that happen?
JOSH EIDELSON: Sure. So, in talking to workers in the Wal-Mart stores and talking to workers who are on strike, retail store workers were inspired by what happened with the Wal-Mart workers, by what happened in June at CJ’s Seafood. But—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain what happened at CJ’s?
JOSH EIDELSON: When those workers went out on strike. In fact, at CJ’s, you had eight workers who forced a confrontation over conditions tantamount to slavery, conditions that—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And CJ’s is a supplier of Wal-Mart?
JOSH EIDELSON: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Or warehouse—
JOSH EIDELSON: Yes, a supplier in Louisiana, where the [Worker] Rights Consortium came in and confirmed workers were being threatened with physical violence. Their boss was telling them he would track down their family members in Mexico if they stood up. People were forced literally to work. And Wal-Mart initially said that they had investigated, and none of it was true, there wasn’t any issue. Eight workers there went on strike. And as a result of their activism and the support they got, Wal-Mart was forced to suspend the supplier.
And so, we see there what we see at Wal-Mart, which is that basic rights that in some cases are guaranteed by law, in other cases aren’t guaranteed by law but are necessary for a basic standard of living, in order to defend them, people are forced to take dramatic action. And when they do it, they face retaliation. And while much of this retaliation is illegal, much of these alleged acts are illegal, workers have found, not just at Wal-Mart but around the country, that the law itself is not good enough, is not strong enough, to rein the companies in.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how has management responded so far? What has the response been from Wal-Mart to this strike?
JOSH EIDELSON: Well, Wal-Mart is acting cautiously. What’s interesting, in talking to some of the strikers, is they say they experienced much more retaliation for actions they took at their local store than they have so far for going on strike. Now, some of them are pessimistic and expect that if the spotlight moves away, Wal-Mart will find a way to come after them. The question, if you’re Wal-Mart—in talking to experts on the company, very few think that the company actually is restrained by the law. The question is, what can they get away with? And if they come down on people, will that inflame more workers, or will that suppress the activism?
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Mike Compton, I wanted to go back to you in Bentonville, where you’re going to be protesting today. You won your strike. Can you explain what was that like, how you organized, and what it meant to walk back in?
MIKE COMPTON: You know, we first started organizing—we had a little sexual discrimination. Our managers tried to send one of the girls home because she wasn’t throwing like a man, or she wasn’t keeping up with the men, is what she was told. And that’s what really brought us all together. We kind of marched onto management and told them that, you know, if she goes, we go. After that, somebody came up with the idea for the petition, you know, and it just kind of grew from there. We started out with just a couple signatures. By the end of it, I think we had the majority of the temps had signed the petition. And like I said earlier, when management refused to take our petition, that was it. There were about, I think, just under 30 of us when we walked out, and it just kind of grew from there. Every couple days, we’d get a couple more, couple more people joining our picket line.
Going back in was—it was amazing. You know, we got—we got full back pay for while we were on strike. And the workers were very jealous. A lot of them wanted to see our back paychecks. And, you know, they ended up, a lot of them, kicking themselves for not walking out when we did and not standing up for their rights.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Josh Eidelson, the Huffington Post reported yesterday that Wal-Mart’s VP of communications, whose name is David Tovar, said that those participating in the strike—although he didn’t call it a strike—aren’t, quote, "representative of our entire associate base."
"We do surveys and our associate satisfaction scores have been improving over the past couple years, which runs counter to what a few workers who show up at events that the unions put them up to would say."
He went on to say, quote, "We have an open-door policy. If you have any kind of issue you should bring it forward to your manager and if it isn’t resolved to your satisfaction you can go to the next level of management."
He then accused the United Food and Commercial Workers Union of engaging in these kinds of, quote, "publicity stunts" before. Can you comment on that?
JOSH EIDELSON: Sure. So that’s similar to the reaction that I’ve gotten in my reporting for Salon from Wal-Mart spokespeople. It is true that the workers who’ve gone on strike are a very small fraction, about one in 10,000 of Wal-Mart’s total workforce. But they’ve taken a very dramatic action, and they’ve done it based on assertions, based on frustrations, that clearly are shared by a larger group of workers. And neither what a particular spokesperson nor a particular survey says can speak to what the depth of frustration is.
Now, you’ll hear different things from different workers, but I, for example, talked to someone who makes less than $10 an hour, talked about how the workers who get paid one week have to then lend money to the workers who won’t get paid until the next week, because people don’t afford lunch. When—as The Nationreported this week, as Bryce Covert noted, the independent estimates that have been done are that Wal-Mart workers make less than Wal-Mart says they do. Even Wal-Mart claims that they make less than $13 an hour.
And so, the question of labor involvement, it should be clear that the organization in play here, OUR Walmart, is closely tied to the United Food and Commercial Workers. It is no secret that labor has long struggled against Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart is one of the world’s largest employers, the largest private-sector employer. It drives down standards. It’s aggressively fought unionization. And we’re at a moment when—it used to be in U.S. history that unionized companies successfully pushed up the standards in industries even for non-union workers. Right now in this industry, we see that standards, even for union workers, have been driven down by Wal-Mart. And so, it is an existential threat to the labor movement. And what we’ve seen in these strikes is a greater level of success and a greater level of risk taken by workers in order to fight Wal-Mart than we’ve seen over the past decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh, I wanted to ask you about overall union organizing and unions coming in, in the past, how Wal-Mart has defeated those union efforts, and what’s happening—and not only in the United States, in Canada, as well, willing to entirely close a plant rather than have a union organize there.
JOSH EIDELSON: Yes. Well, perhaps the most dramatic example was about six years ago, when Wal-Mart shut down a store in Canada after the workers won a union election. And that’s part of why we’re not going to see unionization, if it comes to Wal-Mart. We’re not going to see it in the United States one store at a time. The only way that it would happen would be to win, through a comprehensive campaign, an agreement where the company backed down from anti-union campaigning.
The allegations against Wal-Mart include extensively surveying workers before they’re allowed to be hired, to figure out if they have any kinds of union sympathies; extensively holding captive audience meetings, forcing workers to listen to why they shouldn’t organize, something Wal-Mart—according to workers and in an allegation that’s not denied by the company, Wal-Mart has begun doing the same thing about this organization OUR Walmart. Wal-Mart is accused of extensively firing workers and threatening workers for getting involved.
One of the points that was made by an official from UNI, one of the global labor federations that was in town to support the Wal-Mart workers, is that even in countries with better labor laws, with stronger labor laws, Wal-Mart workers don’t get organized just because they asked to. They’ve still had struggles with the company. And it’s based on actions, like the action happening here, that people have won a higher standard in other countries. And some of those workers, in countries like Argentina, have told me they’re worried that Wal-Mart’s standard in the U.S., Wal-Mart’s tactics in the U.S., could spread to them if they don’t help these workers in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Mike Compton, what are you demanding today in the capital of Wal-Mart, the headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas? And are the workers in your warehouse working with an outside union? Are you union organizing nationally?
MIKE COMPTON: We’ve got some union backing, definitely. I mean, they’ve definitely pointed us in the right direction and helped us out along the way. You know, we’re here in Bentonville today. It’s just time for Wal-Mart to raise their standards. It’s time for a change. You know, Wal-Mart, as we’ve said, is one of the biggest employers in the world, and they set the standard: what they do, you know, it reverberates throughout the world. So, it’s time for a change. And that’s why I’m here. You know, it’s not just—not just warehouse or retail; it’s logistics and trucking and who knows what else Wal-Mart influences.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a game plan for the holiday season?
MIKE COMPTON: I know there is going to be a lot of sit-ins and a lot of walk-outs on the retail end. I think I’m going to go—I’m going to go help on some of the sit-ins. I’m going to try and block some doors, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh Eidelson, an interesting side note, this news just came out of Denver. This isn’t the workers protesting, but this was residents of the Congress Park neighborhood and the surrounding area protesting a Wal-Mart being put in. A developer wanted tax subsidies to place a Wal-Mart in this neighborhood. The battle has been going on for a while. Hundreds of people had Wal-Mart signs, "No Wal-Mart" signs on their lawn. And amazingly enough, late yesterday, Wal-Mart announced it is pulling out. The neighborhood and the city council had—city council members had already said they would not grant the tax subsidies. In a final comment, Josh Eidelson, can you talk about this kind of activism that’s happening at every end? You’ve got residents saying no to Wal-Marts. How successful, do you see, have other struggles been around the country? And then you have workers like Mike Compton who have gone out on strike.
JOSH EIDELSON: Sure. So, what happened in Denver, actually, follows New York City, where Wal-Mart has for a long time been trying to get into the city limits and, in the past few weeks, backed down from their plan, again in the force of community opposition. So they face opposition from communities that don’t want them to move in.
They face this ongoing congressional investigation into Mexican bribery and potentially tax evasion. They face a lawsuit by female workers who say they were discriminated against. And we began to see in the 2000s what looked like a coming together of labor, feminist groups, environmental groups taking on Wal-Mart. What we saw then, though, in the end, was that the worker-organizing aspect in that decade was not as strong as the media aspect and the targeting of politicians and so on. And even when you had Democratic presidential candidates going along in criticizing Wal-Mart, you didn’t have ultimately a game changer, I think, because you didn’t have this level of worker activism.
What we see now is the potential for workers to move into a new phase taking real industrial activism that can spread, that can inspire other workers, that sends a totally different signal. I mean, in answer to what Wal-Mart is saying, it says a tremendous amount when a worker makes a choice to walk off the job, not only to sacrifice pay, but to subject themselves to a greater risk or retaliation. And other Wal-Mart workers know that. The people who haven’t gone out on strike know that their co-workers are doing something dramatic, and I think they, like many of us, are waiting to see what happens. And so, when you pair that kind of industrial activism with the efforts of other members of the community, with political activists, with the community approach, with investigations in Congress, you have something that poses a real challenge to Wal-Mart. Now, escalating that pressure is going to be a test for the labor movement, for everyone else involved. There is going to be more announcements later today, which I’ll be covering for Salon this afternoon, about what steps that might involve.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us. Josh Eidelson, a contributing writer for Salon and In These Times, piece for Salon is called "Walmart Strikes Spread to More States." And I want to also thank Mike Compton for being with us today. He’s in Bentonville, Arkansas. Mike Compton, who worked in Illinois and won the Elwood strike.