Wal-Mart Workers Return To Work After Strike
Employees from Wal-Marts across Southern California returned to work Friday after mounting a one-day strike and holding a rally in front of a store in Pico Rivera, Calif., alleging unfair labor practices by the nation’s largest retailer.
Seventy-one associates from nine Southern California stores officially went on strike on Thursday, said organizers.
It was the first multi-store strike in Wal-Mart’s 50 year history, said multiple store associates. Store associates at Wal-Marts in the United States are not unionized and therefore not safeguarded by labor laws protecting striking workers.
The strike was coordinated by Organization United for Respect, or OUR Wal-Mart, a coalition of store associates that relies on support from unions and affiliated labor organizations, like the United Food and Commercial Workers and Change to Win, respectively.
The goals of the strike varied. Some in the picket lines said their goal was to form a union. Others hoped the strike and accompanying rally would heighten awareness of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s worker practices. Others said they were frustrated by the lack of advancement and low wages.
The strike started in the early hours of the morning, when Wal-Mart associates and supporters began gathering in the Pico Rivera store’s parking lot.
At 5:30 a.m., store associates were calling Wal-Mart’s automated employee reporting system to notify the company that they would not be reporting to their shift.
Evelin Cruz, 41, a department manager in the photo and connection center, said she had been planning for the strike for over a year.
“I have money saved up and a good support system with my family,” said Cruz. “I’m afraid but it’s necessary to do what we’re doing. It’s only one day but I don’t know what Wal-Mart’s reaction will be.”
Fears of retaliation
Retaliation by Wal-Mart management played an operative role in both motivating and limiting the strike.
Jason Alfonso, 29, is an overnight stocker in the Pico Rivera store whose shift typically ends at 7 a.m. but he walked out at 5:15 a.m. Alfonso said those who speak up are penalized by management. He said he was singled out for having a bottled drink at an employee meeting, while others present drank coffee without consequence.
His co-worker, Johnny Perez Jr., 53, said that 75 percent of those on his shift verbally committed to going on strike, which would have been more than 20 workers. Of those 20, only he and Alfonso followed through.
"A lot of people are scared to speak up," Perez said.
Others allege that their hours have been cut and promotions limited because they spoke out. Girshriela Green, 45, who worked at a Wal-Mart in Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills for three years before being fired on July 6 said she was fired for speaking out.
Six days prior to being fired, Green said she spoke at a Wal-Mart rally protesting the chain’s plans to open a store in Chinatown. Adding insult to injury, Green said she was notified of her termination by a letter in the mail.
“Usually they call you in to turn in the badge and the discount card,” Green said.
Green was in attendance at Thursday’s rally with her two-month-old son.
Demands for a living wage
Others on strike and present for the rally said they wanted to see change in Wal-Mart's wages.
Manuela Rosales, 25, an
Rosales, a single mom, said the $10.90 she makes per hour is not enough to support her small family, despite working 40 hours per week. Rosales said babysitting, rent, insurance and phone bills are nearly impossible to pay.
Denise Barlidge, 53, an operator in the Pico Rivera store, said her family is more financially comfortable because her husband also works, but she joined the picket lines to support her co-workers.
“One of the hardest things at Wal-Mart is when I see some of my co-workers come up to buy groceries,” Barlidge said. “Some have to use the EBT card and they can’t look you in the eye.”
Labor leaders speaking at the rally – which began at 10:30 a.m. in the back section of the store’s parking lot – spoke to claims of employee retaliation and poor wages.
“The biggest product Wal-Mart sells is poverty,” said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary–treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
Durazo shared the stage with leaders from the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with Cruz and other Wal-Mart associates.
Wal-Mart dismisses worker claims
Wal-Mart dismissed the validity of the worker’s claims and said the small number of associates on strike pales in comparison to the 12,000 people that the retailer employs in Los Angeles County.
“This rally is just the latest publicity stunt by the UFCW to seek media attention in order to further their political agenda and financial objectives,” Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said.
The company further denied that its associates are actually seeking unionization.
“[Associates] seem to recognize that Wal-Mart has some of the best jobs in the retail industry - good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement,” said Fogleman.
The strike and rally outside the Pico Rivera store is the latest in a spate of anti-Wal-Mart activism in Southern California.
Wal-Mart's bid to open a store in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles galvanized anti-Wal-Mart sentiment, resulting in a June protest with thousands of attendees.
Last month, workers at Wal-Mart warehouse 6990 in Mira Loma staged a 15-day strike and six-day march from the Inland Empire region to the Los Angeles City Hall.
Warehouse workers claimed that Wal-Mart subcontracts to distribute merchandise were unfairly treating employees and called on the retailer to take responsibility.
At the time, the subcontractor that handles logistics and distribution at the Mira Loma warehouse, NFI Industries, chalked up the six-day strike to schemes by organizers – akin to Wal-Mart’s current position on the striking store associates.
Store remains open
Striking workers and the labor rally failed to disrupt business-as-usual for the Pico Rivera store.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff was present and mediated between store management and striking associates.
Inside, the drone of checkout line beeps continued unabated.
Customer Art Corral, 45, of Whittier said he picked up mouthwash and ice cream. He plans to continue shopping at the Pico Rivera Wal-Mart, despite the day’s strike and visible employee discontent.
“Every employer has a responsibility to it’s employees,” Corral said. “But this place is convenient.”
Former Wal-Mart associate David Cruse, 64, of Baldwin Park said he was joining the striking workers, but agreed that no boycott was necessary – only responsibility on the part of the company.
“Wal-Mart is a good thing, but it could be so much better,” Cruse said.