BUSINESS
10/15/2012 04:39 pm ET

Walmart Strikes Mark New Chapter In Labor's Fight With Mega-Retailer

When a strike among Walmart store employees spread to twelves cities last week, a spokesman for the largest private-sector employer in the world made a curious clarification to news outlets, including The Huffington Post: This was not the first-ever employee walkout at a Walmart store, the company argued, citing a 2006 incident in Florida.

In an apparent effort to take some air out of the striking workers' sails -- and perhaps to undermine a juicy national headline -- Walmart seemed willing to remind the public all on its own that some level of employee dissatisfaction has existed at the chain for years. As with the 2006 protest, at a store in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., Walmart has mostly dismissed the recent strike as a bit of union rabble-rousing, though an internal memo shows management's concern that the strike could spread, as HuffPost reported over the weekend.

"The events that took place this week had absolutely no impact on our business whatsoever, on our ability to staff our stores adequately or serve our customers," noted David Tovar, Walmart's vice president of communications. "The workers that have raised issues this week represent a very small, miniscule number of the total number of associates that work at Walmart."

The 90-odd workers who walked out of stores comprise a fraction of one percent of Walmart employees, who now number around 1.3 million in the U.S. and 2.2 million worldwide. Even among participating stores, strike participation was small. But that's not to say a coordinated, multi-store strike doesn't mark a new chapter in the long-running fight between organized labor and America's premiere mega-retailer, argued Dan Schlademan, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union's "Making Change at Walmart" campaign.

"All of this is a new beginning for the reality of Walmart and the reality of retailers," Schlademan said. "You can't change standards anywhere else until you change Walmart."

If nothing else, a not-insignificant number of Walmart workers have proved willing to declare themselves activists or, at least, dissatisfied employees. It takes a certain boldness to invite bad publicity on one's employer, particularly in a weak economy. (The workers may have the backing of a union, but not a union contract.) It also takes some financial sacrifice. Although a strike fund is currently in the works, the employees who went on strike last week forwent their wages for the day, according to a UFCW official.

According to the historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who chronicled Walmart's rise in The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, the risks taken by the striking workers warrant a notch on the Walmart timeline.

"What is big is these workers have actually identified themselves as [union] supporters, and Walmart knows who they are," Lichtenstein said. "As a labor historian, the crucial moment in organizing campaigns is the moment when [workers] can identify themselves publicly as unionists."

Company-wide unionization remains little more than a pipe dream for labor activists, especially considering any contracts would have to be struck on a store-by-store basis. (Walmart currently has more than 3,000 supercenter stores in the U.S.) But the UFCW, which launched the non-union worker group OUR Walmart last year, has continued to invest in pressuring Walmart to boost wages and improve benefits. It argues that raising the bar at the largest company in the world would have broader effects on the retail sector and the economy at large.

Tovar said that Walmart's internal surveys indicate the company's marks with employees are actually improving. He said the average wage at Walmart is now $12.50 for a full-time employee, though he couldn't provide wage statistics for part-timers. Making Change at Walmart, however, claims the average hourly wage of a sales associate is $8.81, about a buck and a half more than the federal minimum wage and well below most areas' living wage standards.

Walmart often notes that more than half of its workers have health coverage through the company, but it doesn't give specific numbers when pressed by reporters. Some Walmart workers say the plans that are offered are too expensive to afford.

Dan Hindman, 28, went on strike for one day at his Walmart in Paramount, Calif. Hindman told HuffPost that his company health plan swallows roughly half of his paycheck, and that he typically gets only two shifts per week, so by giving up one he effectively cut his week's hours in half. Tovar said a majority of Walmart workers are full-time employees, but Hindman said he and many other workers at his store struggle to get enough shifts. A veteran of the retail world since high school, Hindman said he was striking to help improve conditions not just at Walmart but throughout the industry.

"There's a lot of people that are afraid to stand up," said Hindman, an OUR Walmart member. "It's not just Walmart but Target and Bestbuy. We're striking for everybody."

Tovar said Walmart has reached out to the workers who went on strike last week, offering them the opportunity to sit down with management and discuss their issues. "We want everybody to have a good and positive experience working at Walmart," he said.

But it isn't just retail workers and their affiliates who've been criticizing Walmart lately. Union-backed groups in the shipping and food-processing industries have recently made a point of singling out the retailer, arguing that by its sheer size and influence it helps set low standards throughout the consumer economy.

Backed by the labor group National Guestworker Alliance, a group of guestworkers from Mexico recently walked out of the Louisiana seafood processor C.J.'s Seafood, which supplied seafood to Walmart's Sam's Club stores. The workers claimed they worked under abusive conditions, and the Labor Department fined the company roughly $250,000 for safety and wage violations. Walmart has dropped C.J.'s as a supplier.

Similarly, temp workers who handle goods in Walmart-contracted warehouses in California and Illinois launched their own strike preceding the Walmart store workers' walkout. Striking warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill., eventually returned to work, winning full back pay as well as new safety amenities like kneepads and large cooling fans inside the warehouse, according to Phillip Bailey, one of the striking workers.

Although Walmart employs many workers directly at its warehouses around the country, it subcontracts much of its operations in the logistics hubs of Illinois and Southern California, where workers tend to be low-paid temps. Warehouse workers from those areas plan on descending on Walmart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters to deliver petitions this week.

Bailey works for a company named RoadLink but moves goods bound for Walmart stores. He earns $10 an hour without benefits. He said he sees his own situation in that of the Walmart store employees who walked out. Even though Walmart does not employ Bailey, he said he blames the retailer for what he considers sub-par conditions at his warehouse.

"It's all the same struggle," said Bailey, who spent some of his time off last week passing out flyers outside a Walmart in the Chicago area. "It’s the same squeeze. Walmart puts the squeeze on the whole supply chain and on their store workers the same way. ... The same patterns apply all throughout the chain."

Warehouse workers like Bailey tend to have their busiest weeks of the year leading up to the shopping bonanza of Black Friday. Labor activists have long talked about warehouse workers' potential to disturb retailers' holiday plans through a walkout, and the Walmart store employees who went on strike last week have threatened to make Black Friday "memorable" for the retailer. It may require massive participation for striking workers to put a dent in the company's operations, but it would take much less to usher in another round of negative publicity.

"This is really the beginning of a tipping point where workers in many aspects of Walmart's company -- whether warehouses or stores -- are starting to understand that they do have a voice," Schlademan said. "If I'm Walmart, I'm afraid of that."

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