Walmart employees are gathered at the company’s global headquarters for a campaign that connects low-wage workers from Washington to Bangladesh.
For the past week, striking Walmart workers from around the country who are members of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), have been in Arkansas engaging in direct actions at Walmart’s global headquarters and annual shareholders’ meeting. They have been joined by community organizers, allies, and shareholders from around the world.
The associates of OUR Walmart are protesting retaliation against workers who speak out and are demanding that Walmart publicly commit to fair wages, increased availability and flexibility of hours, affordable health care, and respect for the individual.
What they are asking for is a fundamental shift in Walmart’s corporate practices. And as with any big change, they have been met with resistance.
Twenty-one of these strikers hail from Washington State. I had the great privilege to see them off before they embarked on their Ride for Respect. During a send off dinner where clergy and religious leaders from various faiths came to pray for them on their journey, OUR Walmart members shared their stories and their reasons for going to Bentonville.
The WA 21 come from stores in Federal Way, Bellevue, Bellingham, Lakewood, Port Angeles, and Mt Vernon. Of the members I met, several have received employee of the month awards. One woman was even nominated for employee of the year. These aren’t people who hate their jobs, they have a strong belief in the principals Sam Walton stood for, but they also have serious concerns with what Walmart has become.
Perhaps you are wondering why Walmart is so important.
Whether you shop there or not, Walmart is impacting your life.
With stores in 27 + countries, Walmart has rapidly become the world’s largest retailer. Walmart is the third largest employer in the world (the first being the US Department of Defense and the second being the people’s republic of China’s National Army).
Walmart has also become the new business model that others are attempting to replicate.
Imitating Walmart can create big profits, as CEO Mike Duke can attest. While most associates make an average of $8.81 an hour ($15,500 per year), Duke made $20.7 million dollars last year.
But these profits have come at great cost because Walmart has also consistently created more poverty wage jobs with unsafe working conditions. Walmart bills itself as a job creator, but at some point we must start to look at what kinds of jobs are being created and what kinds of jobs are being destroyed.
In addition to being a threat to local retailers, Walmart has also become a drain on our taxes. The most recent congressional study sited that just one Walmart Supercenter was costing tax payers $1 million dollars because so many of the employees have needed to resort to welfare and foodstamps to get by.
A few nights before the send off, one of the associates posed these questions: “For those of you who have never worked at Walmart before, why are you here? What makes you want to do this work?”
I have never worked at Walmart. In fact I grew up in mostly urban communities where there was no Walmart. After watching the High Cost of Low Prices, I refused to shop there. Yet for the last five months I have devoted my time to being a community organizer for the Making Change at Walmart Coalition.
For me the answer is simple. A living wage and respectful work environment shouldn’t be privileges, they should be rights.
I do this work because I believe in it. I believe that associates, mostly people who really love the work that they do, have been mistreated and underpaid. I believe that many more share their experiences, but have been so fear stricken by management retaliation that they have chosen to stay silent.
The work I do is about providing people with the tools they need to move beyond their fears and working with community allies to stand in solidarity with those brave few who choose to speak out.
I am privileged. I know that I will never have to work at Walmart, but I also know that if Walmart isn’t held accountable for its actions that more and more employers will sink to their low standards. In a country with this much wealth and opportunity, there is no reason we can’t all have a decent standard of living.
Standing up to live better may sound like a clever catch phrase, but to me it has become so much more. There is a light that comes on in someone’s eyes when they realize that they are worth more, that they deserve to be treated well and to have jobs where their work is valued and respected.
Once that spark catches, it spreads and it creates transformation. Sometimes it is a fragile fire. People let their fears stamp it out. Who wouldn’t be afraid when you have a family to feed? These jobs aren’t hobbies, many associates depend on Walmart for their livelihood.
But once people take that first step everything begins to change. When people realize that their community is behind them, that we recognize that their fight as our own, everything becomes possible.
And when you change Walmart, you change the world.
The author is a community organizer on the Making Change at Walmart Puget Sound Coalition through the United Food and Commercial Workers union.