In 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.
Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.
Linda Haluska and Lashanda Myrick are two of those mothers, both tired of struggling to support their children on what Walmart pays. “We are Walmart moms; we’re not some political category,” said Haluska, who’s worked at the Glenwood, Illinois store for 8 years, on the call. “We’re real people who are struggling to create happy stable homes for our kids.” Walmart moms, in other words, want politicians and pundits to listen to what they really need, not pander to their perceived political biases.
Bethany Moreton, author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, noted in a 2010 piece that Walmart itself worked to create and maintain the “Walmart Mom” identity. In her book, Moreton points out that the company’s supposed commitment to “family values,” which it expresses in both its marketing and its internal messaging, came directly from its early employees, many of them wives and mothers who’d never worked outside the home before. These early “Walmart Moms” accepted low wages for service work that they understood as part of a Christian service ethic. Caring for customers, caring for coworkers, and caring for one’s family all went together. Yet in 2014 America, the company’s faced repeated charges that it discriminates against the women it employs and retaliates against workers who dare to speak out about their treatment on the job.
Myrick, who plans on striking in addition to traveling from her home in Denver, Colorado to Bentonville to deliver her message at the shareholders’ meeting, has had enough of the company’s pretense of caring. She has two children — an 18-year-old son who graduates from high school next Tuesday, and a 12-year-old daughter — and, she tells In These Times, her meager paycheck forces her to make impossible decisions about priorities.
“A parent shouldn’t have to make a choice of who’s going to be able to get shoes this week and who’s not going to be able to get shoes this week,” she says. “I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in, so I don’t want to show them that I’m a hypocrite by not standing up for something that I believe in. [I’m] showing them that I believe in this and I’m not worried about retaliation, I’m not worried about anything to come my way.”
The tipping point for her came this November, when one of her coworkers sent her an email showing pictures of the food drive at a Canton, Ohio Walmart. Bins were set out at the store asking for workers to “Please donate food … so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Myrick says, “My thought was, ‘Why would we hold a food drive for our employees when clearly [Walmart has] enough money to make sure all its employees will have a decent Thanksgiving?’ That right there really touched my heart and made me say, ‘I need to stand up, because this doesn’t make sense for us to be working for a billion-dollar company and we can’t even feed our families.’”
Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, noted to me in a recent interview that Walmart’s caring culture has, in the past, helped to insulate its workers from its low-wage régime, as they helped to support each other when money became tight. In recent years, however, that protection has slowly eroded. When the company began, after all, many of its workers were married to someone working full-time; the old norms of gendered work meant that women were not expected to be breadwinners, and jobs that were done by women paid less overall. Those jobs also tend to require skills, emotional and interpersonal, which women are usually socialized to possess but are not considered “hard skills” warranting better wages. Now, though, the company is not only the nation’s largest employer of women but its largest private employer, period. That means a whole lot more people are depending on those low-wage jobs to support their families — while, Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work noted on Thursday’s call, our work-family policies are still “set in a Mad Men era.”
That means more and more workers are starting to doubt that Walmart shares their values, after all. Featherstone said that during interviews for her book, which documents the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit, plaintiff Edith Arana told her that “Walmart is like a bad boyfriend. They tell you exactly what you want to hear and that’s how you get caught up, and you just keep coming back.” Just the willingness of women to file a lawsuit against the company for sex discrimination, Featherstone said, was a huge step forward — and the strikes, which began in 2012, surprised the country.
The company made a few changes in the past year, as strikes and protests have continued to buffet it. After worker-shareholders introduced a proposal to change the company’s policy toward pregnant workers, Walmart issued a new one this March, saying that pregnant employees “may be eligible for reasonable accommodation” if they have a temporary disability caused by their pregnancy. Women’s groups and workers said that the company’s earlier policy, which did not allow for such accommodation, violated federal law. The corporation also recently determined that workers can search for available shifts in order to pick up more hours.
But, Haluska says, those changes aren’t enough. She and the other members of OUR Walmart are demanding that the company pay its workers at least $25,000 a year, create full-time jobs and stop its retaliation against employees who go on strike or speak up at work. In addition, activists are building a campaign asking shareholders to vote against Rob Walton, scion of the billionaire family that founded the company, as chairman of the board. Instead, their resolution, which will be introduced and backed by union funds, calls for an independent chair.
It’s going to take a lot of people standing up to fight, but Myrick does believe that Walmart will eventually change when they realize OUR Walmart is not going to back down.
When asked what she would say if, on her trip to Bentonville, she got a chance to sit down with new Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, famously a former hourly associate himself, Myrick responds, “I would ask him where his morals are.”
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.