“People always ask me ‘Is it really that bad to work at Walmart?’”
Former Walmart employees Denise Barlage and Venanzi Luna (Photo by Liz Cooke)
Last week a group of former Walmart employees from around the country—allegedly laid off because of their labor organizing—traveled thousands of miles to the annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. In a telling moment, the activists got a half-hour of face time with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, finishing things off with a friendly photo shoot.
In another telling moment, the organizers were later evicted from Walmart property by armed security personnel.
Last week’s action was the culmination of several years of toil, a quest for what many Walmart employees see as their due. They’re fighting for reasonable wages. They’re fighting for a sane pregnancy policy. They’re fighting for full-time positions, with benefits. They’re fighting for the very right to fight.
“People always ask me ‘Is it really that bad to work at Walmart?’” says former employee Venanzi Luna. “I tell them, ‘If you’re not into basic rights and respect, and you like being treated like an animal, then hey Walmart’s your place!’”
Luna was an associate at Walmart’s location in Pico Rivera, California (a working-class Los Angeles suburb). This store is the second largest employer in town behind the school district—500 families rely on Wal-Mart paychecks. Many of its stores are in communities like this, where a lack of manufacturing and other entry-level employers build a deep reliance on the company—and a fear to speak out.
Back in 2012, Luna and several Pico Rivera co-workers started balking at various labor practices, casually discussing what could be done. Store management was none too enthused. “There’s a practice called ‘coaching’ at Walmart, after you’re overheard saying something the company doesn’t like,” says Annelise Orleck, a Dartmouth history professor who’s writing a book on the new global labor movement. “A manager takes you—it’s typically a male manager and a female employee—into a closed room. Blinds are drawn, threats and intimidation ensue. It’s demoralizing.”
Luna and her co-workers were not easily spooked. In fall of 2012, they became the first U.S. Walmart location to stage a strike. Under the name OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect), and with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the workers continued to agitate and stage periodic strikes. Finally in April of last year, the Pico Rivera store and four other Walmart locations were closed indefinitely—with five hours notice—for “plumbing issues.”
“There is a strong sense that closing these stores was a punitive action,” says Denise Barlage, another Pico Rivera employee-turned-activist, “that we were being given a message.” Walmart denies these claims, though Barlage, Luna and all the store’s other labor organizers were not rehired when the store reopened last November. Due to an injunction, Barlage cannot set foot inside a Walmart.
Make no mistake, however—national progress is being made. The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly sided against Walmart in labor disputes, citing violations such as surveilling, threatening and firing activist employees. Last year, Walmart raised all employee wages to at least $9/hour, then in January they promised to give further raises to 1.2 million employees. And Walmart’s ungenerous policies towards pregnant employees were given an upgrade last year.
Organizers are nowhere close to done, however. Changes to the pregnancy policy were seen as lukewarm (pregnant workers can now receive lighter physical duties), so an OUR Walmart subgroup called Respect the Bump continues to agitate. And the wage increases, while welcome, still fall short of the 15-dollar national average for retail workers. Another subgroup named 15 at Walmart soldiers on.
“When we started out, we were talking with maybe 100 [Walmart] associates in our store,” says Luna. “Then people at other stores saw what we were doing and were like, ‘Damn, if they can do that and not get fired, maybe we can too!’ It started a movement.”
Wal-Mart did not return a request for comment.