- Terelle Jerricks
Consumers supported the protest, even as they shopped
By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
More than 800 people gathered Black Friday, Nov. 23, at the Walmart parking lot in Paramount to voice their discontent with the retailer’s treatment of its employees. The demonstration joined others that spanned 46 states.
Nine people were arrested for obstructing traffic on Lakewood Avenue, in front of the Walmart.
For years, protestors say, Walmart has subjected its associates to sub-living wage pay and benefits and blocked their efforts to unionize. OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart employees backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has staged these demonstrations without seeking union recognition. The workers say that they are protesting the company’s attempts to silence and retaliate for speaking out.
“They’ve threatened people’s jobs, they’ve tried lowering people’s hours — their actual rate of pay — they’ve flipped their schedules around, they’ve intimidated them,” said Greg Fletcher, who works at a Walmart in the City of Duarte. “What I’ve experienced in my store was basically, mocking and insults from my superior management. They have called members of our group lazy, they’ve called us losers, they’ve even compared us to the KKK.”
The Rev. Eric Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke at the Black Friday rally and demonstration, seeking to place the labor struggle against Walmart in the context of the economic rights that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was transitioning before he was assassinated.
“This is Dr. King’s organization,” Lee said of the SCLC. “If he were alive today, he would be standing with us,” Lee thundered.
Lee recounted a recent interview with mainstream media outlets in which reporters would ask, “how many workers are striking?” seeking exact numbers as an indication of the legitimacy their movement.
He also blasted the tendency of the mainstream press to put a time limit on such demonstrations.
“The national press ask, ‘How long is this fight going to last?’” Lee recounted. “The Montgomery bus boycott was originally only supposed to be a day. But it went for 381 days … We are going to continue to fight until Walmart changes its ways.”
Walmart employees have long complained about low pay and lack of benefits. Their benefits are contingent on them being full-time workers, OUR Walmart argues. A situation that benefits Walmart when they maintain part-time employees. Some workers are paid as low as $8 an hour, about $16,000 per year, with wage increments about 20 to 40 cents per hour.
A spokesperson for the retail giant, Rachel Wall, said the striking employees wage complaint are untrue, repeating Walmart standard talking point that they have “very competitive pay and benefits.”
“In California our average wage for hourly associates who work full time is $12.89 an hour,” Wall said. “We have a wide variety of health benefits; they start at about $17 per pay period … There are clearly opportunities to promote for a company of our size … Clearly, a majority of our associates eventually advance to full-time employment.”
Wall directed reporters to Mayra Estrada, who’s been with the company for 8 years, to substantiate the stores stance that most employees are happy with their jobs. Estrada, who works keeping inventory in the backroom of the store, says her job allows her the ability to support her three children and pay for the expenses of her household. She said she is unaware of what protestors outside were demanding.
“I need the job, in the first place, and the truth is that I am comfortable working here,” said Estrada, who gets paid more than $12 an hour, in Spanish. “I get all my benefits, my 40 hours and, well, I am fine working here.”
Neither Wall nor Estrada substantiated whether full time employment was the norm in the company, only to say that the company offers both full and part time work.
But she is the exception to the rule, not the norm, said María Elena Jefferson, who also works at the Paramount store and gets $10.95 an hour after almost five years working there.
Jefferson said she and other workers, who have been working with the company for a few years, are not looking to gain much more in terms of wages but they are struggling to gain full-time employment. Jefferson has been requesting to work full time but has been denied on several occasions.
“They look at us in the face telling us that there aren’t sales, when we know that (the store) is full of people,” said Jefferson, who believes the company gives preferential treatment to certain employees and that some just don’t speak up because they are afraid of losing their jobs, in Spanish. “I tell them, ‘If they are going to fire us they are going to fire all of us.’”
The labor campaign against Walmart began this past October, with 60 employees in Los Angeles. The rallies grew to thousands in cities throughout the country, including Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, Washington D.C., Sacramento, Chicago, Orlando, and parts of Kentucky, Missouri and Minnesota. Hundreds also demonstrated at the Wal-Mart Stores Headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Some Walmart workers have alleged that they have been subject to unsafe and unsanitary conditions, sexual harassment, excessive hours and forced labor in addition to the low pay and lack of benefits.
Despite testimonials from employees who say they have spoken to managers, sent letters to board members and even gone to speak to executives at the corporate headquarters at no avail and no reaction to their concerns, Walmart continues to encourage its workers to speak up, the spokeswoman said.
“We want to hear those concerns,” she said. “We want them to come to a member of management. They don’t have to go to their supervisor or their manager. They can go to any manager so that we can address those concerns. But I would say that is a very small number of associates. Nonetheless their concerns are valid and we want to hear them.”
Not true, said Jefferson. With the exception of the holiday seasons, she said that normally conditions are such that they have very few workers. Often the store schedules one person per department and put one worker in charge of three departments.
“In reality we don’t have a voice in the store,” Jefferson said. “We are ignored when we ask for something. They don’t respect us … We are very angry because they don’t do changes and they have ways to make changes.”
Fletcher hopes demonstrations, such as this one, would help embolden workers and help the company become a better place to work. He believes such actions will result in pressure from the consumers to the company and workers who are not actively seeking change to improve pay, working conditions and fairness.
Yet, some Black Friday consumers found the demonstration annoying.
“This is a free country,” said Victor Medina of Downey. “If you are not happy in one place, might as well go check out other places. Maybe you’ll be happy there. You don’t have to go through all this … wasting people’s time, making traffic. I think it is dumb. I mean, this the country of opportunities. If you don’t go out there and look for it, you’re never going to find it.”
Elizabeth Hoffman, of Rancho Palos Verdes, disagrees.
“First of all, it’s not that easy to get a job,” said Hoffman, an English professor at Cal State Long Beach who went to the rally in support of Walmart workers. “So for someone to risk the job they have in order to have a fair working condition that takes a lot of courage. Secondly, what we are seeing with Walmart is a long-term change in how people work, where corporations have more and more power, send more and more jobs out of the country, and offer goods at prices where they have to exploit the workers and take that money and make huge profits.”
Hoffman believes that if they pay people fair wages, people will spend their money there, buy more stuff and are loyal to the company.
“It’s a win-win, it might be a slightly smaller profit for the company, but they are still making a profit,” she said. “No one is asking a business not to make a profit, but they shouldn’t make exorbitant profits at the costs of sending jobs away and then making those jobs that are still here such bad working conditions that people can’t live on them. That is not a direction that is going to make this a strong country.”
Clergy from different denominations and faiths also attended the rally.
“I am here to support the rights of Walmart workers to decent working conditions, a living wage and the right to collective bargaining,” said Rev. William Connor, the pastor emeritus with St. Joseph Catholic Church in Long Beach “That is the social, moral theology of the Catholic church regarding economic and social justice.”
Moreover, fair wages is not just a moral issue it is an economic issue, said Hoffman’s colleague Douglas Foraste.
“We really subsidize Walmart because they pay their employees so badly that they can get on Medicaid, they can get on food stamps … So, we are actually paying for their employees not just Walmart,” said Foraste, who lives in Long Beach. “By (them) not paying their employees fairly, we foot the bill.”
Considering that it was Black Friday, shopper Bertha Romero, who was unfamiliar with the demonstrators’ issues, said she expected to wait in the lines forever.
“I was actually pretty astonished to see there are no waiting lines inside,” she said. “There are very few people shopping.”
Wall dismisses that customers have been turned off by the workers’ public outcry.
“We’ve had one of our best Black Fridays ever in Walmart’s and we are confident that our customers are having a pleasant shopping experience inside the store. And, while we understand that there a few associates outside the store who have concerns, the vast majority of those outside do not work for Walmart. This publicity stunt organized by UFCW is grossly exaggerated.”
Walmart is the largest retail in the United States, with more than 2.1 million employees globally, including 1.4 million throughout the United States. The company has worked aggressively to stay a non-union workplace.
“What’s important to remember is that so many of the things people take for granted like (child labor laws), social security, unemployment insurance government agencies that watch over safety in dangerous occupations, all of those came about not from employers saying, ‘Gee, we need more government regulations,’ but from unions working with voters and working people to get good regulations,” said Hoffman, a member of the California Faculty Association. “Now we don’t want too many regulations; we don’t want to hurt regulations. We want a fair situation for all.”
While OUR Walmart have stated that protests have taken place at 1,000 stores in 46 states, Wall gave a much lower count, saying that there were about 50 workers who participated in about 26 events across the country on Thanksgiving for the early Black Friday sales, which began at 8 p.m. Nov. 22. They employed about 1 million people in their stores that day, she said. From the Paramount store only about five people called in sick and without exact numbers they estimated the number of workers out of the store to be fewer than 10, she said.
On Nov. 15, Wal-Mart Stores filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to prevent OUR Walmart from protesting.
“We are speaking up for our associates, who work in our stores, who have asked us to speak up on their behalf, who feel that third party representation is not right for them and that they chose to work at Walmart and they would like us to speak up on their behalf,” Wall said. “We have filed this claim so that we are protecting the rights of our associates in our stores and the safety of our customers on Black Friday and throughout the holiday shopping season.”
Some labor experts believe the complaint was meant as a way to intimidate workers, since the NLRB often takes months in making a ruling. Nevertheless, the filing seems to reflect the seriousness the company views the demonstrations.
In this country, workers have the right to concertedly walked off the job in protest. Whether employers can legally terminate and replace striking workers depends on whether a strike has been ruled to be in protest of unfair labor practices and whether workers were offered to come back to their jobs.
Yet, in the in end its all worth it, Jefferson said.
“Because I like my work and I need it, I’m going to fight for that work.”
In Long Beach about a dozen people from Occupy Long Beach demonstrated in front a Walmart on 5th Street. Two people were arrested and later released for writing on the sidewalk with chalk.