Roughly 100 supporters, union members and Wal-Mart employees gathered in downtown Chicago yesterday to voice their demands that the company change the treatment of its workers.
The rally — put together by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), Chicago Jobs With Justice (CJWJ), Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) — coincided with Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting in Bentonville, Ark. The meeting comes in the wake of a series of prolonged strikes by Wal-Mart workers across the country, the first such strikes in the firm’s history.
More than 14,000 employees and shareholders attended the Bentonville gathering, some of whom took the chance to lobby for improvements, such as asking the company to join a pact designed to improve work conditions in Bangladesh. The board rejected all the proposed changes.
Outside of the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on Monroe St., the goals were similar.
Organizers issued a list of four resolutions — each sponsored by various worker groups — that included calls for increased health care coverage and full-time scheduling.
Myriad union locals and grassroots organizations came out in a show of solidarity. At one point, CJWJ organizer and rally emcee Susan Hurley asked other groups to identify themselves. Members of SEIU, Stand Up! Chicago, Arise Chicago, Chicago Workers Collaborative, Fight For 15, United Steelworkers, and the IBEW called out in response, among others.
Current and former employees were also well represented at the rally. Mike Compton, a former warehouse worker at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Elwood, Ill., says that the demands of the group are common sense.
“We are asking for respect on the job, an end to retaliation, a safe working environment and a living wage,” Compton says.
Wal-Mart’s retaliation against organized workers has been well-documented, most recently in a study performed by the nonprofit group American Rights At Work. “Whether by targeting individual leaders, or sending a message to its entire workforce on national television, Wal-Mart’s campaign against its workers’ protected activities shows no signs of abatement,” the study concluded.
One of the rally’s speakers, Eric Téllez, 28, the communications and research director at Grassroots Collaborative, stressed the ways in which the public helps to finance Wal-Mart, both directly and indirectly.
The Arkansas-based company currently receives roughly $24 million from the city of Chicago in tax increment financing. More commonly known as TIFs, the controversial financing mechanism allows the city to divert any increased tax revenue gained from rising property values into a fund that is reserved for urban development — but much of this money ends up getting diverted to private developers and corporate tenants rather than being used for schools or infrastructure.
Additionally, a new report by Congressional Democrats found that, nationwide, taxpayers indirectly subsidize Wal-Mart workers by as much as $1.75 million per store via food stamps and public health insurance that its low-wage workers must use in order to survive.
“But, of course, most taxpayers won’t get to vote at Wal-Mart’s shareholders’ meeting,” Téllez says.
Matthew Luskin, 34, an organizer with the CTU, drew connections between the teachers’ struggle and that of Wal-Mart employees.
“First, Wal-Mart is paying for the sham community meetings which helped result [sic] in the recent school closings in Chicago,” Luskin says. “Second, they’re taking TIF money, which should really go to schools instead.”
Echoing other organizers’ concerns that many workers at Walmart live in poverty, Luskin stressed the connection between low-income households and poor school performance in students. “There is a direct correlation between poverty for parents and low achievement in schools,” he says, referencing studies recently noted in the New York Times.
Hurley outlined some of the coalition’s local goals, including putting pressure on Linda Wolf, a member of Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors since 2005. Wolf, a longtime Chicagoan, had a tumultuous tenure as CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide from 2001 until 2005, and is on the board of several local nonprofits and public institutions.
“Our demand for Linda is to support the demands of OUR Walmart and all supply chain workers or resign [her position on] the board,” Hurley says. In an interview, she added that Wolf has not responded to requests to speak with OUR Walmart.
“Wal-Mart is one of the largest employers in the country and they can set a trend for employers,” Téllez says. “[But right now] Wal-Mart does not expand economic prosperity, it expands a vicious circle of poverty.”
This story was co-written by Lewis Kendall and Griffin Bur.