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Workers in a Walmart-contracted warehouse in Mira Loma, CA went on strike yesterday morning, calling attention to poor working conditions and retaliation from the company against labor-related complaints from workers. Today, workers from six stores in the Seattle area did the same. These strikes follow a handful of others in California and Chicago in September.
The last six months have brought an unprecedented number of strikes throughout Walmart’s U.S. supply chain, intended to pressure the retailer to boost wages and improve benefits, two areas of major controversy for the company and the subject of a 2005 documentary on the subject.
But Walmart’s problems don’t end there. Besides a class action lawsuit filed by female Walmart employees in California in October — with many more expected to come in the next six months — the retail giant is facing potential walkouts at 1,000 stores nationwide on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year for many retailers.
Plans for the walkout began to formalize as a result of a recent announcement by Walmart (followed by other retailers) that most of its stores will open at 8 p.m. on Thursday, the day of Thanksgiving, to kick off the Black Friday event this year. This means workers have to be at stores at least a couple of hours in advance, challenging a long-standing U.S. tradition of keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving to give all employees treasured time off. Black Friday, the "official" start to the Christmas shopping season, has led to stampedes and at least one death. Retailers, looking to grab market share, have been opening stores earlier and earlier every year, but this is the earliest kickoff to the sale ever.
The Black Friday protest is being organized by OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, two union-backed groups, plus Corporate Action Network, a watchdog organization. The organizations are mobilizing Walmart employees through social media, canvassing, and in-store recruitment. The Making Change at Wal-Mart group on Facebook has more than 27,000 followers.
Sara Gilbert, a manager who was striking in Seattle yesterday, told reporters on a conference call on Thursday: “I work full-time for one of the richest companies in the world, and my kids get state health insurance and are on food stamps,” as reported by BusinessWeek this morning.
In 2013, Walmart, the largest private employer in the U.S., plans to scale back its contributions to workers’ health-care premiums - prices are expected to rise between 8 and 36 percent. Walmart is already accused of squeezing many employees into part-time positions in order to make them ineligible for healthcare benefits alltogether.
With fulltime workers, Walmart has a record of denying overtime by illegally deducting hours from employee’s timesheets or forcing them to work off the clock. In 2008, the company settled lawsuits across the country that claimed it forced employees to work off the clock, agreeing to pay workers up to $640 million for violations.
"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," Dan Schlademan, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union's "Making Change at Wal-Mart" campaign told The Huffington Post in October. "If I'm Walmart, I'm afraid of that."
In the same article, he said, "All of this is a new beginning for the reality of Walmart and the reality of retailers. You can't change standards anywhere else until you change Walmart."
Stay tuned for more coverage of the Walmart strikes through the Thanksgiving holiday.
[Image source: Making Change at Wal-Mart]