Striking Walmart workers rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, on June 3, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Blain)
Bentonville, Arkansas—Competing chants pierced the air, and punctuated one another, as a Walmart pep rally and a union-backed protest took place some fifty feet apart this afternoon.
On a public sidewalk across from Walmart’s “home office” headquarters, international Walmart workers and fired warehouse workers joined striking employees in a demonstration calling for Walmart to avert future deaths in its international supply chain. On the other side of a narrow parking lot, a few of the blue-shirted Walmart employees brought to Bentonville by Walmart management began snapping cell phone photos of their striking co-workers, who sang, “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety or on the side of murder?” Then a series of well-dressed Walmart staff began leading the blue-shirted employees in the company’s classic cheer spelling out its name: “Give me a W!” “W!” “Give me an A!” “A!”… “What’s that spell?” “Walmart!”
As successive busses drove up to drop off more company-invited Walmart workers under the Home Office awning, managers led the blue-shirted workers in cheering for their arriving co-workers and chanting the letters of the company’s name. The protesters across the lot from them kept up their slow-paced song, sometimes punctuated with “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “Stand Up! Live Better!” Some hoisted flags and signs identifying their home countries, and giant cut-outs spelling out “1,239 KILLED,” the combined death toll from a building collapse and a fire in buildings where Walmart apparel has been produced.
The “What’s that spell?” chant continued as Bangladesh labor leader Kalpona Akter took the mic on the sidewalk to call for Walmart to join a binding building safety agreement, and as protesting workers read Bible verses in four languages. Then a half-dozen striking Walmart employees walked into the middle of the parking lot, where they were met by Walmart security and local police. As co-workers sang or chanted on either side of the lot, Seattle striker Preston Johnson presented a security officer with a three-foot-tall list of the retailers who’ve signed onto the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh; it included a dotted line at the bottom for Walmart CEO Mike Duke, who hasn’t. “1,239 folks have died because of factories that were unsafe,” said Johnson, “and we found out that Walmart is one of the companies that had workers making clothes there.” As in past Bentonville confrontations, the Walmart security officer told the workers that human resources staff were available to meet with them individually, but not collectively; the workers declined and marched away.
Interviewed afterwards, Johnson called the action “very powerful, very moving.” He said he believed the crowd had successfully communicated “the seriousness of the issue” to Walmart. But when asked about the protest, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed, “This is the same old story from the unions who have to recycle the same small group of paid activists who they ship in for their made-for-TV stunts.”
Factory Safety Scrutiny
As I’ve reported, striking workers from the union-backed group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) have been in Bentonville since Saturday, following a series of Freedom Ride–inspired caravans that made stops in some twenty cities. The workers have framed their work stoppage as a protest of retaliation by Walmart against workers who organized for better wages and working conditions. Organizers say at least a hundred workers are participating in the current strike, which is substantially smaller than last fall’s Black Friday walkout, but significantly longer: workers began walking off the job eight days ago, and have pledged to stay out on strike at least through the company’s shareholder meeting on Friday.
This afternoon’s protesters charged that Walmart bears significant responsibility for two disasters in factories it’s used in Bangladesh: the November fire that killed 112 apparel workers at the Tazreen Factory, and the April building collapse in Rana Plaza, whose death toll was the highest in global garment industry history. In an April interview, Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin told The Nation that she jumped out of the building “not to save my life” but “to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”
Walmart stated immediately after the November fire that it could not confirm whether it had used the Tazreen factory; after photos were released showing its apparel there, Walmart announced that it had cut off the factory prior to the fire, and blamed the presence of Walmart goods there on a rogue supplier that it said had continued filing orders without Walmart’s authorization, and was thus being terminated. Subsequent stories in Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that at least three Walmart suppliers were sourcing goods from the factory in 2012, and that Walmart played a key role in vetoing a 2011 proposal under which Western retailers would have paid for the cost of safety improvements in Bangladesh factories.
Similarly, after The New York Times reported that documents from 2012 showed Walmart apparel had been produced in the Rana Plaza building, Walmart announced that it was terminating a supplier based on “unauthorized subcontracting”; that supplier blamed a “rogue employee.” Since the Rana Plaza disaster, Walmart has drawn a new round of protests and scrutiny for declining to join the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. That deal is backed by the global union federations IndustriALL and UNI, and by a battery of European brands, as well as Abercrombie & Fitch and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
Rather than sign the labor-backed deal, Women’s Wear Daily reported May 30, Walmart and Gap are working with industry groups, the Bipartisan Policy Center and former US Senators Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell to formulate an alternative factory safety plan. Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, dismissed that competing plan as mere “fun.” “We really don’t buy that,” she told The Nation this afternoon. “We will not accept anything that is not legally binding…. If it is voluntary, then they [already] have their Code of Conduct, they have their CSR [corporate social responsibility] and other policies. Those are not working. Those are failing repeatedly.”
Akter said she believes Walmart is resisting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh because it would bind the company to pay for the costs of factory improvements, and to cooperate with unions and workers’ groups to monitor conditions. “They don’t want to share their profits with anyone,” charged Akter, and “they don’t want workers’ voice in the workplace.”
The Walmart-Gap plan was also slammed in a rare joint statement by both major US labor federations—the AFL-CIO and Change to Win—and it drew a cold reception from the top Walmart critic in Congress. Last week, on a media call following his fact-finding trip to Bangladesh, Representative George Miller charged that the companies “want to continue a system that they designed and organized.” “If Walmart and The Gap want to stand alongside collapsing factories and burning factories and women jumping out of buildings,” said Miller, “I guess that’s their choice.” Congressman Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told The Nation that Walmart has “set the pace” and fostered “a system where you either do it under their terms, or you don’t get the contract.” Rather than forcing improved health, safety and workers’ rights, said Miller, the incentive structure set up by Walmart has been “designed to escape those kinds of provisions.”
Along with at least one OUR Walmart member, Akter will be among the Walmart critics presenting resolutions when the shareholders gather at the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena on Friday. The motion to be presented by Akter would allow any group of shareholders who together own a tenth of the company’s shares to instigate a special shareholder meeting to address corporate governance issues. Like three other shareholder resolutions being presented Friday, the proposal is supported by the corporate governance group Institutional Shareholder Services, and opposed by Walmart.
This afternoon’s rally comes amid a week of pre–shareholder meeting protests, including a Monday action in which striking Walmart workers and their family members lined the sidewalk in front of the Bentonville “Home Office,” holding hands and wearing tape over their mouths to represent the company’s alleged efforts to silence workers through retaliation. Reached by e-mail Monday, Walmart’s Lundberg said that a “small and insignificant amount of associates” was involved in the week’s protests, and that “many of our associates from around the country have been vocal in how disappointed they are when people, including this union-affiliated group, disrespect and interrupt their stores.”
Walmart hasn’t been ignoring the planned protests. On Monday, an Arkansas Circuit Court granted a temporary restraining order, requested by the company, prohibiting activists from the United Food & Commercial Workers union or OUR Walmart—other than Walmart employees—from entering Walmart property in Arkansas for “activities such as picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, ‘flash mobs,’ handbilling, solicitation, and manager confrontations” In an e-mailed statement, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill called the order “Walmart’s latest attempt to silence the voices that are calling for real change at the nation’s largest employer.” The OUR Walmart campaign said that the order would not affect its protest plans; during today’s action, organizers repeatedly reminded protesters to stay on the sidewalk.
Walmart’s Lundberg also noted that the company was bringing “14,000 associates from around the globe” to Arkansas “to participate in activities throughout the week that highlight and recognize the accomplishments of the 2.2 million associates around the world and what they do to take care of their customers.” Those activities include free concerts last night and tonight—headlined by Elton John and country singer Luke Bryan, respectively—for the employees the company’s flown into town this week, and those who live in the area.
Reached by phone last night, Springdale, Arkansas, employee Randal Woods, who’s attending tonight’s concert, said that he had never heard of strikes by Walmart employees; asked about “OUR Walmart,” he initially assumed it was the name of a concert. Woods told The Nation his store was “pretty well staffed,” and that while he hadn’t yet worked long enough to qualify for them, “the benefits are really good.” He said that Walmart’s pay “might seem kind of low, but cost of living’s not so bad here, so it’s pretty competitive.” Asked his hourly rate, Woods answered, “I don’t think I’m actually supposed to release that one.” Woods said Walmart was “within my top five of companies to be working for.”
Interviewed Monday, City University of New York sociologist Ruth Milkman told The Nation that the media coverage of the deaths in Walmart’s supply chain abroad could draw increased public attention and sympathy for the company’s US employees. “It’s become a kind of poster child of low-wage and exploitative work,” said Milkman, “both in this country and in the companies that supply it with the stuff it sells. And so I feel like this is a good approach for them to address those issues. But what the concrete results will be is very hard to say.”
OUR Walmart activists hope to talk to some of the co-workers who were chanting the Walmart cheer this afternoon, and eventually to recruit some of them to join their cause. “They’re probably facing some of the same issues as us, as far as retaliation and being scared to speak up,” said striking sales associate Shawnadia Mixon, who traveled to Bentonville from Baker, Louisiana. “And it’s time to stop the silence.”
“These associates that are out here for the shareholder’s meeting, they are going to be some associates that we see back in our stores0” said Johnson. He said he believed that witnessing the action OUR Walmart took to protect worker safety in Bangladesh would “move them to understand how serious it is to look out for each other, as associates for Walmart.”