Walmart Worker Strikes: Is the Big Box Store Really That Bad?

Employees of the U.S.-based retail giant Walmart have begun what organizers say will be the first “prolonged strikes” in the company’s history to protest against their poor working conditions and low pay. Strikes began Wednesday morning in Miami, Massachusetts, and the California Bay Area and are set to continue until at least June 7 when Walmart holds its annual shareholder meeting in Arkansas. The strikes follow the first-ever coordinated action against the retailer, which is notorious around the world for its anti-union reputation, in the U.S. last year. Predictably, Walmart has dismissed the strikes as nothing but a “publicity stunt.”

Employees have opted for prolonged strikes after previous one-day strike action failed to influence Walmart to change its treatment of workers. While the prolonged strike is set to bring fewer protesters than last year’s action, organizers hope that the sustained pressure on the company will have more of an impact.

According to the union-backed labor group OUR Walmart, at least 100 employees have pledged to join the strikes starting today, and more may join later. OUR Walmart activists are also organizing what they are calling a “Ride for Respect,” in which Walmart employees will converge on the annual shareholders meeting near Bentonville, Arkansas. The series of caravans will travel through around 30 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Chicago, before ending up in Arkansas. United Food & Commercial Workers Union official Dan Schlademan, a key figure in the OUR Walmart campaign, says that the goal of the “Ride for Respect” is “to educate Walmart workers and communities about the issues of Walmart.”

Walmart has been routinely criticized, both in the U.S. and abroad, for things including taking customers and business away from small businesses, its low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate health care, its anti-union stance, and its treatment of the environment. Earlier this month, the retailer plead guilty to charges that it had illegally handled and disposed of hazardous materials at its U.S. stores and pledged to pay $81.63 million to the federal government.

OUR Walmart says that the latest strikes are a response to attempts by Walmart management to silence and intimidate employees and activists. According to a recent report by American Rights at Work, since it was founded in 2011, “OUR Walmart says it has received reports of more than 150 individual incidents where workers allege their rights were violated.”

Workers who have joined OUR Walmart or who have engaged in collective action against the company, as those striking today are doing, have reportedly been “targeted by management with harassment, threats, changes to their jobs and working conditions, and retaliatory discipline, including termination,” continuing what American Rights at Work calls Walmart’s “well-documented historical practice of using unlawful tactics to curb workers’ rights to address workplace concerns.”

In addition to retaliation against collective action, Walmart employees have also cited other reasons, particularly poor treatment and low pay, for going on strike:

Barbara Gertz, a Walmart worker from Denver, Colorado, has also urged supporters to sign her online petition addressed to Walmart CEO Mike Duke:

“I am a Walmart Associate, and I am standing with striking workers and calling on you to publicly commit to raise wages and increase access to full time hours so that no workers at Walmart make less than $25,000 per year and stop trying to silence us when we speak out. 

Walmart is among the most profitable companies in the U.S. and is owned by the Walton Family, the richest family in America, yet many Associates at Walmart must rely on food stamps and even go hungry because of low wages and a lack of hours. Walmart can do better. You can start to solve these problems by treating us — your Associates — with respect, paying us a living wage, and providing us with the hours we want and the staffing levels you need — and not silencing us when we speak up for our rights. I urge you to do so.”

While the small number of the people joining the strikes does not seem like much, it is a symbol of the ongoing dissatisfaction with the way Walmart operates and may encourage more people to join in. And regardless of what you think of Walmart, employees should at least be allowed to exercise their right to protest against their working conditions without fear of retaliation.