A former Walmart employee was handcuffed Wednesday when he visited his old store to talk to workers about next week’s “Black Friday” strike. Alex Rivera, who was fired in September, told The Nation that Walmart management intentionally misled Orlando police, leading them to detain him for twenty minutes in the store. The incident was denounced by the union-backed workers’ group OUR Walmart, which alleges that Walmart has been breaking the law to keep its workers in line.
“It was really humiliating,” said Rivera. “Because who would expect being handcuffed in front of a lot of [workers] and customers? Customers that pretty much know you, because you worked for the company for three years.” Rivera predicted that seeing him handcuffed will make some of his co-workers more hesitant to get involved with OUR Walmart: “They’re going to say, ‘If I join the organization and do something like that, this is what’s going to happen to me.’ ”
Reached over e-mail, Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman said, “Unfortunately the facts just don’t support what Mr. Rivera is saying.”
Since being fired by Walmart, Rivera has frequently visited his store to talk to workers. He said that Walmart managers have told him to leave in the past, and each time he’s complied. But Wednesday afternoon played out differently.
According to Rivera and an OUR Walmart organizer who accompanied him to the store, Rivera was leaning over to drink from a water fountain when a police officer grabbed his arm without warning, put him in handcuffs and led him to an office. Rivera said that the officer told him that Walmart management had informed the police that Rivera had previously signed a written trespassing warning obligating him not to return to the premises. Walmart “lied to the police officer.…” said Rivera. “That’s why they handcuffed me.”
Rivera added that when the store’s “asset protection” manager suggested additional details for the officer to add to the police report, “The police officer told him three times. He said no, I’m not going to add that stuff.” Rivera said that after discovering that the police department had no trespassing warning on file for him, the officer asked the store’s co-manager to produce a copy of it. At that point, according to Rivera, the co-manager backtracked, and the police officer “started making faces” at the manager, and quickly released Rivera’s handcuffs. Rivera and the OUR Walmart organizer said that the officer issued them a trespassing warning against returning to the store, but told them that he never would have handcuffed Rivera if he hadn’t been told incorrectly that he had already violated such a signed warning.
Fogleman countered that since his firing in September, Rivera “has ignored several warnings about violating our solicitation policies.” He said that Walmart had “called police to notify [Rivera] that he is no longer welcome at our stores.”
Fogleman referred further comment on the incident to the Orlando Police Department. Asked about Rivera's allegations, OPD Public Information Officer Vincent Ogburn e-mailed Thursday, "That information is not documented. We were called there in reference to issuing a trespass warning. There is no written report involved in the issuance of a trespass warning." Sergeant Ogburn did not offer further information.
Rivera charged that the public handcuffing, like his firing eight weeks ago, was an example of Walmart managers trying “to make sure that nobody joins any union, any organization, nothing whatsoever.” Rivera joined OUR Walmart on July 20, and participated in a worker-to-worker leafleting action at his store the same day. “After July 20,” said Rivera, “everything changed…. They were following me, double-checking what I was doing, and it was constant.” Rivera said the company also began increasing his workload, preventing him from talking to co-workers during work, and holding mandatory meetings to bash OUR Walmart as a group that steals workers’ personal info and schemes to get a cut of their paychecks. On September 22, Rivera was terminated.
Fogleman e-mailed that Walmart “does not tolerate retaliation” and that Rivera was fired for “falsifying his time clock records.” Rivera countered that he never stole time, and that in order to follow the company’s stated policies, workers sometime need to retroactively correct the record to include time they spent helping guests before clocking in or after clocking out. He said he did this without incident throughout his three years at Walmart prior to becoming an activist, and that the only time he had been disciplined in the past was for “excessive” absences due to an injury sustained at work.
In an e-mailed statement, OUR Walmart member Karin Aubrey called Rivera’s handcuffing “just one more example of the company’s over the top attempts to silence workers who are speaking out for better jobs for themselves and their families.” Aubrey, who works at a store in Merritt Island, Florida, called Rivera “a hardworking guy who is trying to create a good life for his new baby girl.”
Walmart has previously threatened legal action against activists who trespass on its property. As I first reported for Salon, an October 8 letter from a Walmart lawyer to several affiliates of the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the labor group Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work accuses non-employees of disrupting “sales and service” by entering “Walmart owned or controlled parking lots, sidewalks” and “stores.” It states that Walmart “reserves the right to pursue appropriate remedies with local law enforcement…”
Following the confrontation, Rivera and an OUR Walmart organizer shared the story at a meeting of the Orlando Central Labor Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate; Rivera said the participants were eager to support next week’s strike. The Orlando incident came hours after Walmart warehouse workers in California launched a two-day strike over alleged retaliation.
Rivera said the confrontation hadn’t dampened his will to fight: “We will not surrender to Walmart. Walmart will surrender to us.”
This story has been updated to include comment from the Orlando Police Department.
Labor organizers aren't alone in their demand for more just working conditions. Check out Bryce Covert on "Americans Want to Raise the Minimum Wage."