Walmart Strike, October 4, 2012. (Photo courtest of Flickr user Matt Hamilton. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
After a parade of drummers, umbrella-twirlers and elephant puppets—and before Walmart’s US president called a couple employees up on stage for on-the-spot promotions—striking Walmart worker Janet Sparks was granted three minutes to address the company’s June 7 shareholder meeting. Her eyes alternating between her typed speech and the thousands of stock-owners and co-workers packing Bud Walton Arena, Sparks dissented from Walmart’s star-studded celebration of itself. Reading nervously but steadily, Sparks described a company that understaffed, underpaid and over-relied on temps.
“So when I think about the fact that our CEO Mike Duke made over $20 million last year,” she said, “more than 1,000 times the average Walmart associate, with all due respect, I have to say I don’t think that’s right.”
A handful of co-workers—fellow members of the union-backed group OUR Walmart—cheered from the bleachers. A few sentences later, when Sparks contrasted Duke’s bonuses with the sparse and paltry ones paid out in her Louisiana store, a few attendees elsewhere tried to start a chant of “USA! USA!” Then, as Sparks asked “if you can honestly say our company is doing the best we can for customers and associates…” Walmart Board Chairman Rob Walton cut in to tell her that her three minutes were up. Soon after, the window for Walmart critics to present shareholder resolutions had closed, and the company was back in control of the day. The hall was bathed in pink and blue lights as musician Prince Royce crooned “Stand By Me.”
(Disclosure: I requested media credentials for the meeting but was denied by Walmart; I obtained access to the arena using shareholder proxy authorization from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that owns Walmart stock.)
This wasn’t Janet Sparks’ first trip to Walmart’s annual Arkansas gathering. Three years ago, she attended the same way thousands of other Walmart “associates” do: by being hand-picked and flown in by management. That year, she came up to Mike Duke alone in the arena after the meeting to ask him to help bridge what she called a “moat” insulating management from the experiences of rank-and-file employees.
A lot has changed since then. In 2011, working closely with organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a hundred employees launched OUR Walmart, labor’s latest effort to force change at the nation’s largest employer and pioneering union-buster. Last year, the group pulled off the first coordinated US strikes in Walmart’s five-decade history, culminating in a high-profile walkout by more than 400 workers on Black Friday.
In the months since, the organization has neither spread like wildfire, nor been snuffed out by Walmart. After six months spent largely out of the headlines, OUR Walmart launched a smaller but longer strike: beginning May 28, about a hundred workers walked off the job and joined Freedom Ride–inspired caravans across the country, which converged in Arkansas for a week of counter-programming to the shareholder convention. Outside billionaire board member Jim Walton’s house, they tried to leave a giant check for $8.81, a (contested) estimate of workers’ hourly wage. Police warned them that would be “littering”. In Walmart’s Bentonville backyard, they went door to door to invite residents to a forum on how Walmart hurts communities. Outside Walmart headquarters, they slammed Walmart’s complicity with Bangladesh factory disasters with a dirge: “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety, or are you on the side of murder?”