As planned Black Friday strikes draw increasing media attention, Walmart continues to publicly dismiss the actions as stunts and the workers involved as an unrepresentative fringe. But workers charge that behind closed doors, the company is waging a stepped-up campaign to to intimidate them out of striking. That includes both alleged illegal threats and punishments, and likely legal mandatory meetings designed to discourage workers from joining the Black Friday rebellion.
Today, OUR Walmart filed the latest of dozens of National Labor Relations Board charges against Walmart. The charge, announced this evening, alleges that Walmart's national headquarters has "told store-level management to threaten workers with termination, discipline, and/or a lawsuit if they strike or engage in other concerted job actions on Black Friday" and that managers in cities including San Leandro, California, Fairfield, Connecticut, and Dallas have done exactly that. It also alleges that Walmart Vice President of Communications David Tovar "threatened employees" with his statements. OUR Walmart says it is seeking "immediate intervention" to remedy the alleged crimes. In an e-mailed statement, American Rights at Work Research Director Erin Johansson said, "Walmart appears to be issuing serious threats to employees to stop them from exercising their rights under law."
In past interviews, Walmart has denied that it illegally retaliates against workers for activism, and Tovar denied the latest allegations in an interview with The New York Times. But the company has not denied that it holds mandatory meetings to discourage it. (As in a union campaign, such “captive audience” meetings are legal, though some “threats” are not.) OUR Walmart confirmed that workers have reported being required to attend such meetings in the lead-up to Black Friday.
Christopher Bentley Owen, an overnight stocker at a Tulsa Walmart supercenter, told The Nation he and his co-workers were lectured about the strike at a mandatory 10 pm meeting last night. According to Owen, the highest-ranking manager on the graveyard shift read, “word for word,” what appeared to be a prepared script from corporate headquarters slamming the Black Friday actions planned by the labor group OUR Walmart. The statement called OUR Walmart a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, called its actions a “stunt,” and warned that by discouraging customers, the Black Friday actions would hurt employees’ end-of-quarter bonuses. Rather than downplaying it, said Owen, “It seemed like they were treating it like the notion of people picketing outside of stores could be a big deal.”
Owen said that his manager read, verbatim, a list of questions and answers that appeared to have been designed to instruct managers how to respond to workers’ questions, rather than to be read word for word. According to Owen, the manager read a hypothetical question from a worker who had heard that the strikes were legally protected, followed by an answer that, “It seems to us that this action is not protected by the law.” He read a hypothetical question from a worker about whether striking on Friday could lead to punishment, and then, “Answer: No comment.” After reading that, said Owen, “He kind of chuckled.”
Judging by the scripted questions and answers, said Owen, “They want to communicate to us, or plant the idea in our heads, that we could get disciplined.” Owen described the statement as “very much corporate-speak. It didn’t seem like it was written by our guy.” When the co-manager opened the floor for actual questions, said Owen, no one spoke up.
These latest allegations come amid a marked shift in Walmart’s public rhetoric, with Walmart VP Tovar telling multiple outlets since Sunday that if workers don’t show up to work on Friday, “depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences.” Owen said his store has also been “cracking down on attendance” over the past week, issuing “verbal warnings” to many more employees for past attendance infractions, which could set workers up for heightened punishment if Walmart disciplines employees who strike on Friday. (As I noted yesterday, sending workers a message that the strikes aren’t legally protected could also be the primary purpose of Walmart’s labor board charge against the UFCW.) Walmart did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon regarding mandatory meetings.
Owen, who is not an OUR Walmart member, takes the meeting as a sign that Walmart isn’t counting on its wages and working conditions to dissuade workers from striking. Asked about Walmart’s assertions that it offers “competitive” compensation, Owen said that he makes $8.45 an hour after six months at the store. Without the $1 premium he receives for working the graveyard shift, Owen noted, he would be “barely above minimum wage.” “I don’t consider that to be competitive,” said Owen. “I’m not sure who they’re competing with.”
That view was backed up by a Friday article in the Huffington Post revealing an internal Walmart document called “Field Non-Exempt Associate Pay Plan Fiscal Year 2013.” Reporters Alice Hines and Christina Wilkie wrote that the plan “details a rigid pay structure for hourly employees that makes it difficult for most to rise much beyond poverty-level wages.” Based on the internal guidelines, they reported, “a ‘solid performer’ who starts at Walmart as a cart pusher making $8 an hour and receives one promotion, about the average rate, can expect to make $10.60 after working at the company for 6 years.”
Asked about the documents, Kory Lundberg, Walmart’s Director of National Media Relations, e-mailed that Walmart “has some of the best jobs in the retail industry,” with pay and benefits “as good or better than our retail competitors, including those that are unionized…Last year alone, we received 5 million job applications.”
Interviewed while on the picket line, Pico Rivera, California, retail worker Venazi Luna countered, “We start at minimum wage. If you really started us at thirteen dollars an hour, we wouldn’t be out here.” She called on the company to “show us respect” and to “stop lying to the media.” Luna works in Pico Rivera, where the first-ever coordinated Walmart store strikes kicked off on October 4. Workers walked out again this morning, launching the latest in what organizers have promised will be a thousand strikes and protests in the nine days leading up to and including Black Friday.
OUR Walmart members aren’t the only ones calling on Walmart to pay better. Yesterday, the progressive think tank Demos released a new study, Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy. Demos proposes that major retailers voluntarily implement a minimum wage floor equivalent to $25,000 a year for a full-time worker. Its report concludes that such a policy would lift 1.5 million retail workers and relatives out of poverty or near-poverty, create 100,000 or more jobs, and generate over $4 billion in additional retail sales. “This could be a private sector stimulus,” report author Catherine Ruetschlin told The Nation, “with no enforcement from the government at all.”
Ruetschlin’s report finds that the proposed wage floor would increase prices by no more than 1 percent, but could also be accomplished without any price hike at all. It notes that major retailers spend billions more on repurchasing their own stock than it would cost them to implement the proposed wage floor. Echoing OUR Walmart, Ruetschlin argues that a wage increase would pay its own dividends for Walmart in the form of greater consumer demand, increased productivity and better worker retention.
“What we’ve really shown with this report,” said Ruetschlin, “is that low wages are a business choice, and that they’re not the right business choice.”
Walmart did receive a friendly mention from one liberal source yesterday: the White House. In a message about tax and deficit debates sent to a public White House e-mail alert list, Senior Adviser David Plouffe wrote, “And leaders ranging from the heads of labor unions to the CEO of Walmart are saying that it doesn’t make sense to drag this out and leave the middle class uncertain about what they’ll be asked to pay in taxes.” Walmart CEO Mike Duke participated in President Obama’s meeting with business leaders last week. President Obama has not spoken publicly about the wave of strikes facing the nation’s largest employer, or the Labor Board charges against the company. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
This story has been updated to include the news of OUR Walmart's latest Labor Board charge against Walmart.
Walmart workers won’t be striking alone on Friday—they’ll be joined by Occupy Wall Street activists, marching in solidarity. Check out Allison Kilkenny’s coverage here.