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Walmart turns 50

A coalition of Walmart workers, community groups, and small businesses is throwing a 50th birthday party for the retail giant.

In that spirit, here’s a story from Walmart’s earliest days (related at length here a few years ago): At the time of Walmart’s founding in July 1962, President John Kennedy passed a law extending the minimum wage to retail workers – with a loophole for companies earning less than $250,000.  Sam Walton promptly divided his stores into individual companies so they could be exempt.

On Saturday, community activists will pass out birthday cupcakes outside the Walmart Express at Presidential Towers, and Walmart workers — employees of local stores who are part of the new OUR Walmart group, along with members of Warehouse Workers for Justice — will tell stories of low wages, unaffordable health coverage, and wage theft.

It takes place a 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 30, at 570 W. Monroe.

“The past 50 years have really not been great for our economy, and Walmart’s growth is not unrelated to that,” said Janel Bailey of Chicago Neighborhoods First, a coalition of labor, community groups, and small business.

“Because they’re such a large employer, their model has had an impact throughout the retail industry and throughout the economy,” said Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs With Justice.  “What they have done to the standard of living of working people has been dramatic and quite harmful.”

With the closing of Walmart departments and stores where employees have voted for union representation, thousands of workers across the country are now coming together in OUR Walmart (it stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart).  It’s a nonunion association, as is Warehouse Workers for Justice.

And because previous efforts to block Walmart’s entry into Chicago failed – the company is pioneering a smaller format, the Neighborhood Market, allowing it to move into properties already zoned commercial without the public oversight required for big box developments, Hurley points out – local activists are focusing on supporting Walmart workers and “reforming” the company.

Food deserts and food stamps

While the company talked about filling “food deserts,” nearly all its Chicago stores are in affluent areas downtown or on the North Side – and its Walmart Express in Chatham is in an area with a thriving business district.

“The food desert talk was a red herring, part of the p.r. push to get into the city,” said Bailey.

“Food deserts are only part of the story,” she said.  “Areas that lack food access also lack access to good jobs.  Food deserts are also living wage deserts.  The problem is that if you’re not paying a living wage, you’re not really solving the problem of access to food.”

Indeed, half of all Walmart employees qualify for food stamps – not a strong sign that access to food is high on the company’s priorities.  (With Walmart now accepting food stamps, Newstips pointed out a couple years ago, “the money paid by taxpayers to supplement Walmart’s low wages can now be spent at Walmart, contributing even further to the Walton family’s riches.”)

On top of that, it’s estimated that $225 million is spent nationally on free and reduced school lunches for children of Walmart employees.

Meanwhile, in recent years Illinois has led the nation in tax subsidies to Walmart.  That’s in addition to providing Medicaid for many of the company’s employees.

In another 50th anniversary event, Interfaith Worker Justice is holding a prayer vigil on Friday, July 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Walmart at 3636 N. Broadway.  The group is calling on the company to mark its anniversary by finding ways to “give back for the sake of the neighborhood.”

Warehouse workers say Wal-Mart has to pay up

Workers fired from a Wal-Mart warehouse near Joliet after they filed a lawsuit charging wage theft say the company  has to stop hiding behind subcontractors and take responsibility for correcting legal violations.

Backed by Warehouse Workers for Justice  and joined by community supporters, they’ll deliver a complaint to Wal-Mart representatives at the new Wal-Mart Express store in Presidential Towers tomorrow (Thursday, February 16, 12 noon, Monroe and Jefferson).

In November, workers hired by Eclipse Advantage to staff the Wal-Mart warehouse filed suit charging they were paid below minimum wage and shorted on hours.  On December 29, 65 warehouse workers were informed that Eclipse was being replaced and they were out of a job.

On February 1 they filed a federal class-action lawsuit charging Eclipse had violated the federal WARN Act which requires 60 days notice for a mass layoff.   Their lawyers argue that while they were hired by a temporary agency, they were long-term employees (or “permatemps”). They also amended the original lawsuit, charging that they had been fired in retaliation for complaining about wage theft, in violation of state law.

They’re now filing a formal complaint with Wal-Mart charging that its subcontractor violated the company’s code of conduct for suppliers and demanding that workers be hired back and paid the wages they’re owed.

Corrective actions

Earlier, Wal-Mart seemed to suggest that Eclipse was replaced in response to workers’  allegations.

“We hold all of our vendors to high standards, and our expectation is they comply with all applicable laws,” spokesperson Greg Rossiter told WBEZ. “Our vendors, such as Schneider, may take whatever corrective actions may be necessary.”  Schneider is Wal-mart’s LA lift truck service provider, manages Wal-Mart’s warehouse and contracted with Eclipse for personnel services.

Warehouse workers aren’t buying that.

“Somebody has to pay these workers the money they are owed,” said Mark Meinster of WWJ.  “If the firing was retaliatory, Wal-Mart has to correct the situation. Just putting these people out on the street is not a solution.”

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