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Working In These Times

Monday, Sep 9, 2013, 4:49 pm

New Englanders Gather To Back Wal-Mart Worker

BY Jeff Schuhrke

A crowd gathered on Friday outside Wal-Mart in Chicopee, Mass. to protest alleged retaliation against worker Aubretia "Windy" Edick (R) for striking. Former Wal-Mart worker Lucas Handy (L) was among those arrested in NYC on Thursday, Sept. 5 protesting outside the office of Wal-Mart board member Christopher Williams.   (Jeff Schuhrke)

Late last week, OUR Walmart—a union-backed organization of store associates calling for improved working conditions, health benefits, and a minimum $13-an-hour wage—staged its largest protests since Black Friday. Demonstrations in 15 cities drew several thousand people, and about 100 were arrested.

In addition to OUR Walmart’s core demands, the protesters turned out to insist that Wal-Mart rescind the verbal and written warnings issued to some 60 OUR Walmart members who were part of a prolonged strike this June and reinstate 20 strikers who were fired.

Among the striking workers who were disciplined—or “coached,” as Wal-Mart euphemistically calls it—was 63-year-old Aubretia “Windy” Edick, a cashier at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the Western Massachusetts town of Chicopee. “They gave me a verbal warning. They told me that the strike wasn’t legal. They told me if I was absent again I would be fired,” Edick says. Outside the Chicopee  Wal-Mart last Friday, approximately 100 people assembled to protest the store’s alleged retaliation against Edick.

Edick has worked for the retail giant for over a decade, mostly at a store in Hudson, N.Y. For years, she worked alongside her stepfather, who was an associate at the same store.

But she wasn’t there the day he suffered a stroke at work—which was when she first realized that, in her words, “Wal-Mart cares nothing about” its employees. “It was my day off. Wal-Mart did not call an ambulance or anything. They called me instead,” Edick recalls. It took 45 minutes for Edick, who did not own a car, to get to the store. By the time she finally got him to a hospital—without assistance from the store’s management, she says—it was too late for doctors to help. Her stepdad spent the rest of his life in a nursing home, paralyzed and unable to speak. “When he left for work that morning—that was the last time he was ever home,” she says.

Edick soon discovered that, like her stepfather, she could not rely on Wal-Mart to take care of her as a worker despite years in the store. In 2012, she suffered a heart attack at work. She says doctors made her take an 8-month leave of absence, during which time she had no income and “lost everything,” including her apartment.

So last fall, friends in Western Massachusetts invited her to come stay with them. Before leaving Hudson, Edick went to her Wal-Mart store and “filled out all kinds of paperwork” in order to transfer to a Wal-Mart in Chicopee, Mass. near where she would be living. She says her managers in Hudson told her to report to the Chicopee store on January 1, 2013 and assured her she would retain her full-time hours. Those promises proved to be empty, she says: “I got to this store and they didn’t even know of me. There was no paperwork, nothing.” After more than a month of “hassling” store management in Chicopee, she was finally rehired, but only part-time.

Upon starting the new job, Edick made it known to both management and her new coworkers that she had been an active member of OUR Walmart in Hudson. “She outed herself,” says Jon Weissman of Western Mass Jobs with Justice, a local chapter in a national network of community-labor coalitions working closely with OUR Walmart.

Weissman believes that Edick’s openness about her OUR Walmart affiliation helped convince several other Wal-Mart associates in the area to join the organization. “I don’t think we ever would’ve gotten over their fear without her chutzpah,” he says. Edick was one of about 100 OUR Walmart members who went on strike for over a week during the company’s shareholder meeting this June, after which she was disciplined for being absent.

Western Mass Jobs with Justice helped bring together the crowd on Friday that gathered to support Edick and to show her coworkers that OUR Walmart is supported by the community and the local labor movement. Representatives were on hand from the community organizations Neighbor to Neighbor and Mass Senior Action Council, as well as from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1459, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Teachers AssociationUAW Local 2322SEIU Local 509IBEW Local 2324Carpenters Local 108, and Machinists Local 743. Students from the area’s five colleges were also there. 

Nationally, Jobs with Justice (JwJ) partners with the UFCW on campaigns around Wal-Mart. These include efforts to force concessions from the company before it moves into a new city, such as the Respect D.C. coalition, which pushed through a living wage ordinance targeting large retailers. A similar movement is now underway in the Western Massachusetts city of Holyoke.

While the UFCW provides OUR Walmart with organizing support, JwJ carries out an important, but sometimes overlooked, role in the effort to organize low-wage workers—that of building broad-based community support. JWJ has 40 chapters across the country that can draw on long-term relationships with union locals, faith-based organizations, and community groups.

“Some of the traditional forms of union organizing have been under attack for so long, have been eroded for decades, to the extent that workers are having to depend on more community-based strategies,” says Erica Smiley, JwJ’s national campaigns director. This is particularly crucial for the unconventional model of “non-majority” or “minority unionism” exhibited by OUR Walmart and the fast-food worker campaigns, which differs from more traditional forms of organizing that aim to win official representation for collective bargaining through elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Weissman says he prefers to call this community-backed model of organizing “Section 7 organizing,” referencing Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees workers—regardless of whether they’re represented by a recognized union—the right to engage in “concerted activities” for “mutual aid or protection.”

“‘Minority unionism,’ ‘non-representational bargaining,’ and ‘non-majority unionism’—phrases like that are all about the lack of collective bargaining… Don’t use a term that says you’re stopping short of something. You’re not stopping short of anything,” Weissman argues. “What the OUR Walmart campaign is doing, it’s asserting [workers’] rights under Section 7.”

Though the NLRA forbids retaliating against workers for exercising their “concerted activity” rights, employers are often able to skirt labor law simply by coming up with obscure reasons to discipline or terminate them. In the case of the nearly 80 Wal-Mart associates who were fired or “coached” this summer, for example, the company claims that the actions were in response to “individual absences” and had nothing to do with them “participating in any specific protests.” OUR Walmart filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB on July 1, but it could be months before the board issues any decision.

“Despite the law, there’s just not often a lot of protection in the implementation,” Smiley explains. “So when workers are walking out, while they’re still depending on the support of the [NLRA], they’re also really leaning on community leaders like clergy, students and elected officials to actually walk them back” to work to make sure they are not immediately retaliated against by managers. 

(Alliances with community groups and elected officials have been important to the fast-food worker campaigns as well, with organizations like New York Communities for Change and Chicago’s Action Now doing much of the initial organizing last year. One of the most remarkable examples of the power of community support came last November when a Wendy’s worker in Brooklyn was fired a day after she participated in a walkout—only to be immediately reinstated when community activists and New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams showed up to protest and picket outside the store.)

At the action in front of Windy Edick’s Wal-Mart last Friday, UFCW organizer Bertha Guillen encouraged everyone at the demonstration to reach out to any Wal-Mart workers they knew, tell them “they’re not alone,” and connect them with JwJ or UFCW.

Timothy Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, a local teachers’ union, said he supports better pay and conditions for Wal-Mart workers because many of them are the parents and guardians of the children he and other teachers work with every day.

Edick says that encouragement from JwJ and other allies is “really very important to me. It keeps me going.” She compares labor-community coalitions to a bundle of twigs: “If you take a twig and you [try to] snap it, it’s gonna break. But if you take a bundle of twigs that are the same strength and you try to snap it, it’s not gonna break. And that’s what’s happening here.”

Jeff Schuhrke is a Summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.

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