“People across the country are starting to see the real Walmart,” said Q Knapp, a Texas Walmart worker who went on strike Wednesday. “And that’s why I will continue to stand up because the time for change is now.”
Indeed. If there were ever a time to make change at the nation’s largest private employer, it’s now. Walmart’s overwhelming contempt for workers, expressed through its continued low wages and poor benefits, its retaliation against workers who organize, and its sole goal of profit — even pushing Black Friday deals up two hours to begin on 6pm Thanksgiving Day — has caused outrage. The outcry against Walmart’s working conditions has been quickly picking up steam, becoming a national topic of conversation right in time for the 1,500 Black Friday protests scheduled across the country, where people will rally in front of stores to demand respect and fair treatment.
Knapp, who has worked at Walmart for 19 years, said she went on strike because she was “tired of being disrespected.” She said that when her brother went to the hospital after having a heart attack, she received Walmart’s approval to spend time in the hospital with him. But when she returned to work, she was disciplined for being absent. Knapp said she has also witnessed a fellow coworker get terminated after fighting for better working conditions.
“Walmart is a bully, and the only way to fight back against a bully is to speak up,” Knapp said. “The message to Walmart is simple: we will not be silent.”
And they haven’t been. The workers are making a lot of noise and sparking a nationwide dialogue. Here are seven signs that their actions are turning the tide on workers’ rights.
1. The NLRB finds Walmart’s retaliation tactics illegal.
In a huge victory for labor, the National Labor Relations Board found that Walmart violated the rights of 117 of its workers. On Monday, the NLRB released a statement affirming that Walmart stores “unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees” for both “having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests” and “in anticipation of or in response to employees’ other protected concerted activities.”
The NLRB charges finally address Walmart’s longstanding history of intimidating workers who desire better working conditions. In the past, Walmart boasted that it would tell employees who asked about unions that their benefits and vacations “might go away.” These 117 workers may receive back pay, reinstatement and a reversal of disciplinary actions. A Walmart spokesperson has said that the company will defend itself and that its actions were “legal and justified.” If Walmart does not reach settlements with the parties, the NLRB will issue complaints, which would lead to a hearing.
2. The fear is fading, and workers continue to speak out.
Instead of silencing workers, Walmart’s harsh retaliations are actually encouraging more and more workers to speak out. Even several fired employees are continuing the fight and making sure their stories are told and voices are heard. This community of former and current workers, known as OUR Walmart, has been highly courageous. As the saying goes, courage is contagious. Check out OUR Walmart’s video here featuring workers who have been fired. The best part: their rewording of Walmart’s motto “Save Money. Live Better” to “Speak Out. Live Better.”
3. Workers can’t wait for Black Friday.
Empowered more than ever, all this speaking out has led to amped-up action, happening even before the planned Black Friday events. In recent weeks, strikes were reported in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Washington. Perhaps the most notable action was in early November, when more than 50 Walmart workers in Los Angeles were arrested after taking part in the largest act ever of civil disobedience against Walmart. These escalating actions are the leadup to the 1,500 scheduled Black Friday protests around the country.
In addition to striking, some workers have also made sure to stop business as usual for the heads of Walmart. On Tuesday, a group of protesters interrupted a talk between Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who is on Walmart’s board of directors. Carrying a sign of Mayer’s face with the caption “Why did I join Walmart’s board?” protesters chanted “Walmart strikers' revolution” before being removed by security.
On Friday, another group of fired workers rallied in front of Walmart’s home office in Bentonville, AR, demanding to meet with Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon and be immediately reinstated.
4. OUR Walmart’s actions received numerous endorsements.
These eager workers are not alone in their desire for change. OUR Walmart has stated that numerous individuals and organizations have announced their support for Walmart workers’ Black Friday actions. They stated:
Individuals and organizations announcing their support for Walmart workers represent millions of Americans from every corner of the country, including members of Congress such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA); policy experts and academics such as Demos, the National Employment Law Project and the Economic Policy Institute; women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women and Family Values @ Work; and environmental and consumer protection organizations such as he Sierra Club, the National Consumers League and Food and Water Watch.
5. Walmart food drive takes national spotlight.
With a deep passion and a strong backing, the OUR Walmart campaign was only missing one thing: national media attention highlighting the retailer’s poor working conditions. But one picture changed that this week. The photograph, which shows a sign on a bin reading: “Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” has been given mainstream media coverage. In one image, the photo captured how little Walmart pays its workers, and the company’s attempts to mask that fact. An anonymous Ohio employee sent the photo to OUR Walmart after seeing the food drive for the first time at her store. She described the food drive as “demoralizing” and “kind of depressing.” In response, OUR Walmart has called for “Decent pay, not handouts.”
Stephen Colbert took on the image on "The Colbert Report," saying:
Now, some critics out there are saying Walmart isn’t doing enough, but they’re wrong because Walmart isn’t doing anything. These bins are for Walmart employees to donate to other employees. And where can Walmart’s low-wage workers find cheap food to donate? Walmart. Anyone can afford food there — except people who work at Walmart.
6. Walmart workers’ struggle reaches celeb-world.
OUR Walmart’s time in the limelight inspired Ashton Kutcher to address Walmart on the matter. In an impressive Twitter battle first reported by Salon, Kutcher called out Walmart (@WalmartNewsroom) for their poor treatment of workers. With his more than 15 million Twitter followers, Kutcher tweeted a link to the news about Walmart’s food drive and wrote: “Walmart is your profit margin so important you can’t Pay Your Employees enough to be above the poverty line?”
Walmart responded to Kutcher, writing: “It’s unfortunate that an act of human kindness has been taken so out of context. We’re proud of our associates in Canton.” Kutcher replied, “You should be proud of your associates but I’m not sure if they should be proud of you.” The exchange ensued, but ended with Kutcher linking to a post on employees’ use of public assistance and calling on Walmart to be a leader in workers’ rights. A recent report found that one Walmart store costs taxpayers $900,000 in federal subsidies.
In the past, critics of Walmart have called on celebrities to stand up for Walmart workers, most effectively by refusing to perform at Walmart’s shareholder meetings.
7. Paying workers more makes sense.
After garnering an outpouring of support, it never hurts to have math behind you. A new report from Demos, a public policy organization, found that Walmart could raise its workers’ wages by $5.83 an hour and not have to raise its prices a single cent. The report, titled “A Higher Wage is Possible: How Walmart Can Invest in Its Workforce Without Costing Customers a Dime,” found that Walmart spent $7.6 billion last year to buy back shares of its own stock. Amy Traub, co-author of the report, called the tactic a “Wall Street financial maneuver that makes stock shares worth more.” She said if Walmart redirected this spending into its workforce, it would have a beneficial effect on the economy overall.
Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon said at a conference that 475,000 out of its 1.3 million workers are paid more than $25,000, which has been understood to mean that the other two-thirds of its workforce isn't. Walmart’s median wage is $8.80 an hour. Meanwhile, Walmart made more than $17 billion in profits last year. The Walton family’s wealth totals nearly $145 billion — equal to the wealth of 42 percent of Americans.
Walmart has been dubbed “America’s real welfare queen” for relying on taxpayers to help its workers in the form of government assistance. As the food drive photo illustrated, wages at Walmart are so low, workers struggle just to afford basic needs. This is most likely what plays a huge role in Walmart’s decreased sales for its third straight quarter. Bill Simon stated that shrinking sales are due to customers’ declining income while costs are increasing. But he failed to grasp that low-paying companies like Walmart cause this decreased income across the board, as it sets the standard.
Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary, has said: “Walmart is so huge that a wage boost at Walmart would ripple through the entire economy, putting more money in the pockets of low-wage workers. This would help boost the entire economy — including Walmart’s own sales.”
Dorian Warren, associate professor of political science and international and public affairs at Columbia University, said on an OUR Walmart press conference that Walmart workers’ actions are historic. He compared their fight to the fight against General Motors, which, he said, was everything that was wrong with the nation’s economy as the largest private employer more than 60 years ago.
Those courageous workers through 1946 to the early 1950s set standards for the entire American economy. They got all the big companies like GM to raise standards. And as we think about today, and we think about Walmart as the embodiment of what’s wrong with the American economy today, we are seeing yet again the courageousness of workers being willing to take risky actions to risk their livelihoods for all of us. Unlike General Motors, which actually represented the American Dream of upward mobility … Walmart represents the death of the American Dream in the 21st century. … The United States is now the richest democracy on the planet, with the worst levels of social mobility.
Warren concluded, “We owe them all our full support and encouragement.”
To find your local Black Friday protest to support Walmart workers, visit BlackFridayProtests.org.
Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.