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Working In These Times

Saturday, Jun 30, 2012, 12:00 pm

Unhappy 50th Birthday, Walmart!

BY David Moberg

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Thousands gathered on June 30th to protest Walmart's plans to open a store in L.A.'s Chinatown. (Photo by Marc Goumbri)  

After losing her job in advertising when her small-business employer folded during the recession, Marie Kanger-Born, 54, found herself turning in desperation a year ago to a night shift job stocking shelves at a suburban Chicago Walmart. But she wasn't happy with what she calls "the weird culture of fear" that its hovering, hectoring supervisors created, the inadequate staffing that forced everyone to work faster and at risk of injury, the erratic scheduling, the refusal to pay for overtime work, and the retaliation aganst anyone who was not subservient--often through cuts in hours of work.

Today, Kanger-Born is far from home, joining an anticipated 10,000 protesters in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles, many of whom will be telling Walmart that they don't want its stores in L.A. Kanger-Born has her own message from "associates" like her to the corporate execs in Bentonville, Arkansas: "They need to listen to us. We know what's going on at the stores. And second, we would like to be treated with more respect."

You could call it wishing Walmart an unhappy birthday. Next week Walmart is officially celebrating its 50th anniversary. As a counterpoint, Saturday's demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other cities are calling attention to the flawed record of the world's largest retailer—abor rights abuses in stores, suppliers, warehouses and all along the company's vast logistical network, devastation of small businesses and communities, environmental degradation (despite many "green" initiatives that cut Walmart costs), and the political and economic mis-use of its vast power.

Though many groups are involved, two projects supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union have taken the lead. One is Making Change At Walmart, a public education campaign. The other is Organization United for Respect, or OUR Walmart, an association of associates, which is not a union but a looser, member-run group that is strongly dependent on Internet communication but also sponsors meetings and protests in real time and places, including the workplace.

Kanzer-Born discovered it when she was searching for information about the company's overtime policy and has since been an active supporter, even though Walmart often treats the group like a union, holding anti-OUR Walmart meetings and even firing activists.

The unhappy birthday parties highlight the tough time Walmart has faced recently in the court of public opinion.

  • At Walmart's annual meeting on June 1st in Arkansas, roughly one-third of votes not controlled by the Walton family (which owns about half the stock) opposed re-election of the CEO, board chairman and prior CEO, and about 39 percent of the same non-Walton group favored executive salary limits, a ten-fold increase from last year.
  • The dissidents included many of the country's major public pension funds, including the biggest, CALPERS (California state workers), which explicitly cast its anti-management votes because of a scandal that broke this spring over Walmart's Mexico executives bribing officials there.
  • Public opposition to Walmart expansion continues, especially in urban markets like Boston and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, two top candidates for mayor in Los Angeles—City Councilman Gil Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel—responded on Friday to the anti-Walmart sentiment by pledging not to accept campaign contributions from Walmart.
  • Recently an employee of a public relations firm working for Walmart was exposed for spying on Walmart warehouse workers under the guise of being a journalist. Walmart shortly afterwards dropped the firm, Mercury Public Affairs, which it had previously jettisoned in 2006 for producing a racially inflammatory ad against Harold Ford, an African-American politician from Tennessee.
  • Like a growing number of major corporations, Walmart—but not the Walton Foundation—dropped its membership recently in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Civil rights leaders had pressured corporations to cut ties with ALEC, which fosters and promotes right-wing state legislation, including the "Stand Your Ground" laws that may provide a defense for the killer of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
  • Last week the Workers Rights Consortium, which normally monitors overseas sweatshops supplying U.S. retailers, released a devastating report on abuses of Mexican workers in the United States on H2-B guest-worker visas at a Louisiana crawfish plant, C.J.'s Seafood, which provides Walmart with 85 percent of its production. The Consortium reported that the workers labored 15 to 24 hours at a stretch, earned less than the minimum wage, were housed in filthy facilities, and endured constant verbal abuse, so that "the totality of the abuses taking place at this employer constitute forced labor under U.S. law."
  • The National Employment Law Project (NELP), an independent non-profit, found in a recent report that Walmart is a major force driving down labor standards through its policies of outsourcing, especially in its logistics operations, and "squeezing" contractors and workers constantly to cut costs. The report focused on southern California warehouses, where Latino workers suffer a "severe toll," including violation of minimum wage laws, overtime pay rules (a problem for four-fifths of Latino workers). and meal break statutes. In Walmart's own operations, wage and hour law violations are common: The Department of Labor recently ordered the company to pay $5.3 million for overtime pay violations.
  • Recent investigations, including a Cal/OSHA safety report, show that Walmart is directly involved in mangerial decisions of its subcontracting logistics companies, which use piece rate pay systems that are confusing and complex, falsify records, maintain unsafe working conditions, and create a "climate of fear" among workers, according to NELP.

The accumulating pressure from so many directions gives organizers reason to believe they can indeed change Walmart. Making Change At Walmart Director Dan Schlademan has this birthday wish: "I'm hoping the next 50 years will be different from the last 50."

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]

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