Back in October, a neon green shirted flash mob invaded a Walmart. But this was no-ordinary Walmart, and this is no-ordinary group of people.
They are former and current employees of Walmart, and they’re not wearing smiles of sunshine. This is because the Walmart they’ve targeted is directly across the street from the retail giant’s main headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The 50 or so neon-clad people quickly gathered around the front of the store near the cashiers. One of them began to play a bucket drum, and as an infectious rhythm spread through the store, a young lady in neon green raised a fist, and fellow activists followed her lead.
These activists call themselves OUR Walmart; the acronym stands for Organization United for Respect. They feel their cause to be historic as they speak out for a living wage and greater benefits. But they seek an even bigger concession, one that doesn’t ask for too much considering it won’t cost the Walmart heirs, the Waltons, a cent: greater respect.
With fist still above her, the young lady in neon green prepared to lead the others in a workers’ song for the 21s century, but then a store manager stepped a bit too close. The activist doesn’t hesitate, and begins to rap to the beat:
“Coach me, work me!
You will never break me!
Stand up, listen up!
Now it’s time to speak up!
OUR Walmart is here to stay!
That Walmart needs to listen to US!”
The raucous scene was historical. Walmart employees were striking and protesting for the first time under an organized effort. And if you’re thinking of buying a flat screen television from Walmart on Black Friday or even after pigging-out on Thanksgiving Day, you too may very-well be flash-mobbed by striking Walmart workers.
Video of workers' action at Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas:
OUR Walmart and several of its financial backers, such as the United Food and Making Change at Walmart, have called for a nationwide protest and walk-out this coming Black Friday.
It is a bold move, but well-calculated and includes a strong Internet presence. Retail organizers interviewed by Toward Freedom for this story all agree that OUR Walmart, which is now in 44 states, is a significant event. As one organizer emphatically said, this the “beginning of a new reality that isn’t going away.”
OUR believes that over 1,000 members will strike. Not a large number if you consider Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, employs a mind-boggling 1.3 million Americans. Nonetheless, OUR has won some early battles, when back in October they convinced members from Los Angeles, Dallas, and ten other cities, to strike.
Preston Johnson, a twenty-something from the Seattle area who traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas for the flashmob, works third shift for Walmart as an overnight support manager. He joined OUR over a year ago after dealing “with my fair share of unfair treatment.” He is striking on Black Friday outside his store.
“Like many of the associates who are standing up, I was able to stand up for some of the things that are wrong and correct those wrongs,” he told Toward Freedom. “I am trying to convince many of my associates to walk out. I know they are scared of retaliation, but I will show them as being a manager it is okay to stand-up against unfair labor practices in our stores. We want to end the retaliation. We want to end unfair scheduling [40 hours one week, 8 the next], the low pay. But most of all, we want respect.”
Retaliation against OUR is in full season – terminations, suspensions, moving people to night shift and more. But Johnson doesn’t fear losing his job because OUR has turned to the National Labor Relations Board for protection. Just like union workers, non-union workers under labor laws cannot be disciplined for walking off the job when protesting conditions that fall under federal Unfair Labor Practices.
Patrick J. O’Neill, the Director of Organizing for the United Food and Commercial Union (UFCW) – a long-time thorn in the side of Walmart – admits the UFCW is the “anchor” of OUR Walmart. The Waltons have decried the UFCW, believing the union simply is seeking political and financial gain, and doesn’t truly care about its hourly or lower-level associates.
O’Neill scoffs, saying, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m not sure how a politician can help us.”
O’Neill says as the holidays near, dissent is brewing in every Walmart.
“The workers are taking this very seriously,” he says. “The workers are fearful, they’re scared, because at the same time Walmart is retaliating against them for being active, for organizing. But instead of the workers crawling under the table and being scared, they’re saying ‘Screw you.’”
On the other side of this labor struggle, Walmart is giving the same bah-humbug answers, boasting of how Walmart has been opening on Thanksgiving for years and that OUR’s opinions only represent a handful of their workers.
“I just want to re-emphasize the fact that most of our stores operate 24 hours and have been open on Thanksgiving since 1988,” said Steve Restivo, a spokesman for Walmart told Toward Freedom. “Recently, there have been a very small number of associates raising concerns about their jobs, while the opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of the more than 1.3 million Walmart associates in the US.”
Johnson, the OUR member from Seattle, says Walmart is often vague when telling their own associates what their rights are – if they tell them at all. With OUR up and running, Johnson says more and more Walmart workers are finally understanding the power they actually have.
“I am definitely seeing change,” says Johnson. “When we come into the stores, and are able to get management to take a step back from retaliating, the associates’ appreciate us giving them the knowledge of their rights.”
John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.