“Are you ready to strike and refuse to work this Thanksgiving and Black Friday to protest Walmart’s bullying?” That is this year’s rallying call from the Organization United for Respect – better known as OUR Walmart – as they try once again to convince Walmart associates across the county to strike on Black Friday.
Since forming in 2011, OUR Walmart has targeted Black Friday seeking higher wages and greater respect for Walmart’s 1.3 million American associates, by far the largest private workforce in the nation and one which helped reap Walmart $280 billion in US sales last year.
OUR Walmart is being called a “worker organization” and while worker organizations don’t have negotiating power like unions, federal law permits them to speak out against employers without the threat of retaliation.
Earlier this month, and for the first time in company history, Los Angeles associates held a sit-down strike. Days later on November 18th, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hosted members of OUR Walmart on Capitol Hill.
There’s more: a petition was quietly circulated throughout Walmart Supercenters across the nation to gauge support for OUR Walmart. The results recently posted online show associates from all parts of the country support OUR Walmart’s demands for $15 an hour, full-time, consistent schedules, and (most importantly, they say) more respect for associates.
OUR Walmart is not a union; however, they receive financial support from the United Food and Commercial Union (UFCW). Dues are $5 a month, nevertheless.
The Walton heirs, the owners of Walmart and the world’s richest family, are sweating what is shaping up to be the mega-retailer’s most serious worker challenge to date.
The Waltons are standing their ground as the firings of OUR Walmart members mount. Manager snitch hotlines strictly for worker dissent have been set up, and Walmart appears to have reverted to using Facebook against OUR Walmart members.
“There’s a whole (new) set of workers who were retaliated against,” UFCW spokesperson Jamie Way told Toward Freedom about the latest wave of strikers. “There was a woman who had worked for Walmart for 11 years and she got fired right after she posted on Facebook that she was going on strike. There was another woman in California who had worked for the company for almost 20 years and was fired. A New York Times story came out about part-time work and it featured a picture of [an OUR Walmart member] and she was fired shortly after that.”
In response to all past retaliatory firings, OUR Walmart has turned to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for legal help. After an investigation earlier this year the federal board, which protects a worker’s right to organize, issued a formal complaint accusing the mega-retailer of breaking labor laws.
The federal board typically seeks a settlement before prosecuting any charges. But Walmart has stated that all firings “were legal and justified,” and thus the OUR Walmart labor complaints are headed to litigation.
These cases are still pending—when and if they are settled in federal courts is perhaps the key battle for what is arguably becoming the greatest labor fight of the 21st century.
One major concern is whether the NLRB will follow through with significant penalties against Walmart considering the charges that it violated labor laws appear unshakeable. The X-factor, however, could be Walmart’s powerful (financial) influence on Capitol Hill.
Walmart and its lobbyists have been greasing the palms of Congress and other federal agencies for decades. Take for example in 2013 how President Obama appointed Sylvia Mathews Burwell to head the Office of Management and Budget. Before this, Burwell was running the Walmart Foundation, the mega-retailer’s charitable arm.
But according to The Nation, she used the foundation’s “massive budget…to expand the retail giant’s influence at all levels of government.”
Perhaps foreshadowing how the NLRB will handle the OUR Walmart cases is the story of Kentucky resident Aaron Lawson, who steadfastly remains with OUR Walmart even though he is certain his affiliation led to his firing.
“I was there four years and I joined OUR Walmart three years ago,” explained Lawson, who was terminated earlier this year. “They knew I was with OUR Walmart and my activity with them. After I went on strike (last Black Friday) they pulled me into the office and read me a memo about it, and reprimanded me for the days I went on strike. This is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.”
Lawson filed a “ULP” (unfair labor practice) with his regional NLRB office. However, the charge was dropped due to “lack of evidence,” said Lawson.
“They needed more documentation to prove to the judge that they were in violation of National Labor Relations Act,” he explained.
When asked if his story had any weight with the NLRB and the judge Lawson responded, “Apparently not. I think they (NLRB) were partially on Walmart’s side.”
John Lasker is a journalist from Columbus, Ohio
See these previous TF reports by John Lasker on Walmart workers’ organizing: