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Walkouts at Wal-Mart

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An unprecedent rolling strike wave hitting Wal-Marts across the country – started in September by warehouse workers in northern Illinois and southern California – will include walkouts by employees at a number of Chicago-area Wal-Marts on “Black Friday” this week, organizers say.

Meanwhile organizers working with temporary staffing agency workers charge Wal-Mart is evading the wage commitment it made when it entered Chicago two years ago by using temps to fill positions in its stores here.  Chicago Workers Collaborative is backing staffing workers in Wal-Mart stores who recently filed a wage theft lawsuit against the company.

Wal-Mart employees who will be striking on Friday will speak at rallies on Wednesday, November 21, from 5 to 8 p.m. at two Chicago Wal-Marts, 570 W. Monroe and 3630 N. Broadway.

Backed by labor and community supporters, Wal-Mart associates will walk out at a number of stores in the area on Friday.  Details aren’t available, but media contact information is here [2]Chicago Jobs With Justice [3] is also organizing support

Small one-day strikes started last week at two California Wal-Marts, with workers later walking out at two stores in Dallas and six in Seattle.

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“It’s time for us to speak out,” said Tyrone Robinson, an associate at a Chicago Wal-Mart.  “If we don’t speak out, things are just going to stay the same.”

Robinson is a member of OUR Wal-Mart [4] (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart), a nonunion association which has been joined by thousands of Wal-Mart associates in the past year.

“Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world,” Robinson said.  “They could afford to give us decent wages and health insurance and better hours.  They just choose not to.”

One major complaint is the company’s practice of cutting associates’ hours.  Robinson says he was working 40-hour weeks when he started at Wal-Mart a year ago, but since then his hours have been “drastically reduced.”

“I was doing fine,” he said.  “I had a 40-hour week and I was able to keep my own apartment.  I was on my way to getting some kind of vehicle.”  He takes public transit and often has to be at work at 3 a.m.

But since since his hours were cut, “I had to move in with my grandmother,” he said.  “Now I have a two-hour commute.”

There are other immediate concerns.  The company is increasing health premiums by as much as 36 percent following another steep increase last year, and has raised the number of hours needed to qualify for health coverage from 24 to 30 a week.

And after opening for the first time on Thanksgiving evening last year, this year they’re moving the opening time two hours earlier, to 8 p.m.  That’s not welcomed by associates who have to be at the store hours earlier, said Marc Goumbri, a local organizer for OUR Wal-Mart.

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A central issue is the charge that Wal-Mart punishes employees who speak out.  That was also an issue in the September strikes by warehouse workers.  Members of Warehouse Workers for Justice [5] here struck for three weeks after a Wal-Mart subcontractor fired a WWJ member who’d filed a wage theft lawsuit.

The warehouse strikers won reinstatement for fired members and full wages for all strikers, said Leah Fried of WWJ.  Delegations travelling to Arkansas for the corporation’s stockholders and “stakeholders” meetings also won a meeting with a Wal-Mart vice president, the first time an official of the corporation has met with a labor organization.

Fried says Wal-Mart acknowledged its responsibility for conditions in its warehouses, including ensuring that its policies permitting freedom of speech and association are followed by subcontractors.  The group is pressing for a follow-up meeting with Roadlink, an employment agency that supplies the Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, near Joliet.

But Fried said retaliation continues, leading WWJ to file additional labor board complaints last week. “We’re going to need to continue to wratchet up pressure to hold Wal-Mart accountable,” she said.

WWJ is holding an action in support of Wal-Mart associates Friday at 9 a.m. at the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 2424 W. Jefferson in Joliet.

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Wal-Mart has responded to OUR Wal-Mart’s plans by filing an unfair labor practice complaint, charging the strikes are part of a union organizing drive, and with letters warning employees who are absent for scheduled work time.  (On Tuesday the National Labor Relations Board declined to issue an injunction blocking Friday’s actions.)

In fact, OUR Wal-Mart represents a new approach that recognizes the difficulty of union organizing in the face of Wal-Mart’s vehement anti-union strategies, with labor law providing only weak protections.

As noted here [6], the NLRB has found Wal-Mart guilty of a range of violations – spying, harassment, intimidation, illegal firings – but minor penalties have had no impact.  According to Human Rights Watch, Wal-Mart ‘has translated its hostility toward union formation into an unabashed, sophisticated and aggressive strategy to derail worker organizing at its U.S. stores that violates workers’ internationally recognized right to freedom of association.”

“We are pro Wal-Mart workers,” said Moises Zevala of Local 881 of UFCW [7], which supports OUR Wal-Mart.  Previously UFCW has sought to organize Wal-Mart workers; the company closed all its butcher departments nationwide after seven butchers in a Texas Wal-Mart voted to affiliate with UFCW twelve years ago.

“We know our communities are desperate for jobs, and we want Wal-Mart to improve the wages and working conditions to make their jobs worthwhile rather than bringing everybody’s standards down,” Zevala said.

“Because these are poverty wages, all they do is put our neighborhoods deeper in debt; they don’t get them out of poverty,” he said.

He notes that since coming to Chicago in 2010, Wal-Mart has increasingly relied on temporary labor to staff its stores.  “They had an opportunity when they came here to give people good wages, good hours and benefits; instead they have created an even lower tier,” he said.

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Dozens of workers at staffing agencies who are sent to unload trucks and stock shelves overnight at Wal-Mart stores in Chicago have told organizers with the Chicago Workers Collaborative [8] that they’re paid $8.25 an hour, said Leone Jose Bicchieri.

That’s 50 cents less than the $8.75 hourly rate which Wal-Mart promised they’d pay local employees during talks with City Council members who approved a West Side store two years ago, he points out.

CWC, which organizes temporary workers, assisted with a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month charging Wal-Mart and its subcontractors with violating federal wage and overtime laws by requiring workers to show up early, stay late, work through lunches and breaks, and participate in trainings, all without compensation.

It’s apparently the first wage-theft lawsuit filed by workers in Wal-Mart stores [in Illinois].  A number of such complaints have been filed by Wal-Mart warehouse workers.

(The staffing agency targetted in the lawsuit is Labor Ready, the company that hired Jdimytai Damour, who was trampeled to death when shoppers broke through the door at a Long Island Wal-Mart on Black Friday four years ago.)

The problem is the temporary labor industry as a whole, Bicchieri said, which he described as “a system that’s designed to fail workers and provide maximum profits to client companies.”

For example, since contractors pay workers’ compensation, Wal-Mart managers are less concerned about injuring workers, pushing them to handle heavy loads more quickly, Bicchieri said.  He said CWC has uncovered cases where labor contractors who submitted low bids actually sent less than the agreed-on number of workers for a job, putting greater stress on workers who have to take up the slack.

“It’s exploitation squared,” he said.

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On Tuesday, in yet another Wal-Mart-related action, CWC and OUR Wal-Mart members protested labor abuses, including uncompensated hours, for staffing agency workers at the Phillips-Norelco plant in Roselle, which supplies Wal-Mart with electric shavers.

According to Bicchieri, Wal-Mart charges $189 for Norelco’s Senso-Touch razor, while hundreds of workers who assemble, pack and ship the product get $66 for 10- and 11-hour days at the plant.

“While Norelco asks Walmart shoppers to ‘upgrade their shave,’ we have to shine a light on the downgrades in Norelco’s labor practices.” he said. “This facility has some the worst conditions for workers in our state.”

CWC called on Wal-Mart “to hold its major supplier of electric razors accountable.”

There’s more to come, Goumbri promises: “This is just the beginning.”

 

Related:

Wal-Mart warehouse workers declare victory [9]

Wal-Mart turns 50 [10]

Facing death penalty, garment worker addresses Wal-Mart [11]

A Triangle Fire every year [12]

Wal-Mart’s low wages – from Bangladesh to Joliet [13]

Company store: from Pullman to Wal-Mart [14]

Old tricks at Wal-Mart [15]

Tax Day: Where’s Wal-Mart? [16]

Sick days at Wal-Mart [17]

Wal-Mart warehouse workers charge wage theft [18]

Wal-Mart breaks the law [19]

Wal-Mart and workers rights [6]

Illinois leads the nation in Wal-Mart subsidies [20]