Wal-Mart Strike, October 4, 2012. (Photo by Matt Hamilton, courtesy of Flickr user Neon Tommy.)
This story has been updated to reflect additional terminations, condemnations from members of Congress, and comment from Walmart. The original story appears below the updates.
Update (10:45 AM EST, Monday):The OUR Walmart campaign now alleges that since Friday, Walmart has terminated nine workers who joined this month's strike, and disciplined eighteen others. According to the campaign, two other strikers were terminated during or after the strike but prior to Friday. That makes twenty-nine workers who went on strike this month and were allegedly punished; twenty-six of those strikers were among the hundred-some who traveled to Arkansas.
Reached over e-mail, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg told The Nation, "our decision had everything to do with what was a violation of attendance policy and nothing to do with a specific protest."
Update (4:45 pm EST, Saturday): Of the roughly 100 Walmart workers who this month went on strike and traveled to Arkansas, OUR Walmart alleges that five have been fired, ten have received disciplinary “coachings,” and one has been suspended. Along with Lisa Lopez from Orlando, the other fired workers are from Miami; Chicago; and Lakewood, California. Organizers allege that one of the workers was told directly that the termination was for striking, and that several of the “coachings” were identified as punishment for “unexcused absence” during the strike.
Asked about the firings of Walmart workers who went on strike, Congressman Keith Ellison told The Nation, “One, they are to be expected. Two, they are completely unjust and illegal.” Ellison (DFL-MN), who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, added, “Power concedes nothing without a demand, and if these CEOs at these big companies are reaping ultra-profits out of the hard labor of these workers, they’re not about to give it up easily. So you’re going to have these retaliatory measures.” Ellison urged elected officials “to intervene and to really stick up for the workers,” and said that at the CPC, “we need to be much more engaged” on the issue of workplace retaliation. “Because people shouldn’t have to suffer in silence,” said Eliison, “and if people are willing to step out there, and to risk so much, they shouldn’t be alone.”
Reached by email, Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) also slammed Lisa Lopez’s termination: “It’s ridiculous that WalMart would fire an employee for bringing WalMart’s own rule book to the job. Whom do they think they are fooling? Would WalMart fire me for bringing the Constitution to work?”
Reached by email Saturday regarding the alleged retaliation, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said that fired workers Maria Roberty and Jovani Gomez were “terminated for violating the Walmart attendance policy—to suggest otherwise would be wrong and not based in fact.” Lundberg wrote that Lisa Lopez and a co-worker “were both coached recently for committing the same food safety violation at the same time.” Lundberg noted that Lakewood worker Nicole Mora “gave her two-week notice” this week prior to her alleged retaliatory firing.
“Like any company, Walmart has an attendance policy that helps ensure our customers are being taken care of…” wrote Lundberg. “We are applying the attendance policy to individual absences in the same way we do for other associates. There were other associates who participated in these recent union activities [and] did not receive any discipline because their absence in the individual circumstances did not trigger our attendance rules.”
Under US law, it is generally illegal to target workers for discipline because they went on strike, but can be legal to “permanently replace” strikers by filling their positions during the strike and refusing to let them return to work. OUR Walmart contends that its strikes have been “Unfair Labor Practices” strikes in protest of retaliation, a status that provides additional legal protection. Asked about that claim, Lundberg responded, “We evaluate every situation individually, but as a general rule, the law does not protect hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are part of a coordinated union plan.”
Two of the workers who’ve been disciplined had previously secured victories after filing charges against Walmart at the National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with enforcing private sector labor law. Washington State worker Jerry Paladan, whose case led to a notice being posted in his store reiterating employees’ right to speak up about health and safety, has been suspended. Kentucky employee Aaron Lawson, who was previously fired by Walmart but reinstated following an NLRB charge, is among the ten “coached” by management.
While labor law offers protection for collective action, pro-labor activists and academics have long argued that the slow process and paltry penalties available at the NLRB fail to meaningfully deter companies like Walmart from retaliating. Labor leaders have also recently warned that NLRB could be rendered non-functional given Republican obstruction on nominees, a DC Circuit Court ruling rejecting President Obama’s NLRB recess appointments and the looming expirations of NLRB members’ terms. Absent action by Senate Democrats to stop Republican filibusters on nominations, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told The Nation yesterday, “It falls apart, there’s no NLRB.” That would mean, warned Cohen, “that management can do whatever they want in terms of workers’ rights.”
The OUR Walmart campaign promised swift activism against the alleged retaliation, beginning with a planned 4 pm PST delegation to management at the Lakewood store. “Every American who believes in freedom to speak out against injustice should be alarmed that the country’s largest corporation is acting this way,” said Andrea Dehlendorf, OUR Walmart’s Field Director. Dehlendorf told The Nation that in her conversations with the workers who’ve experienced the alleged retaliation, “people are angry, and they are doubling down on their commitment.”
Baker, Louisiana, OUR Walmart activist Janet Sparks, who spoke at the company’s shareholder meeting this month, told The Nation that Walmart’s tactics are “really showing how scared they are—to use unfair coachings and firings to get rid of courageous people who are standing up, telling the truth while Walmart lies in the media.” Faced with retaliation, said Sparks, “it just deepens my resolve to stand up.”
Original Story (1 am EST, Saturday): The union-backed labor group OUR Walmart alleged Friday night that Walmart has retaliated against multiple workers who went on strike and traveled to its Arkansas headquarters this month, including Florida employee Lisa Lopez, whom the retail giant fired Friday.
“I think they don’t want me to actually let people know what’s really going on at Walmart as an associate,” Lopez told The Nation. “So they’d rather get rid of me.” Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.
As The Nation has reported, about a hundred members of the retail workers’ group OUR Walmart, which is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, mounted a several-day strike in the lead-up to the retail giant’s June 7 shareholder meeting. That first-ever prolonged strike by US Walmart employees, which began May 28, brought Lopez and others workers from across the country to Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown, where they staged a week of protests.
The OUR Walmart campaign described Lopez as a prominent activist, noting that she was the star of a campaign video, posted to Youtube May 31, which highlighted her reliance on food stamps and a second job to support her family. Lopez drew the attention of local and national media (including The Nation) during OUR Walmart’s November 23 “Black Friday” work stoppage, when US Congressman-elect Alan Grayson came to her St. Cloud, Florida, store to accompany her as she went on strike.
Lopez told The Nation that she was informed by management Friday that she was being fired, ostensibly for bringing a Walmart policy book into the deli area where she works on May 23. Lopez, a nearly two-year employee, said she had received two previous disciplinary “coachings” from Walmart since Black Friday: one for wearing earrings, and one for not completing her assigned work by the end of her shift. OUR Walmart has previously filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Lopez was being singled out because of her activism. Lopez said that the earring rule was a newly implemented policy that a co-worker was not disciplined for violating, that the time that she couldn’t finish her workload was due to understaffing and that management gave her no indication last month that having brought the rule book to her work space would cost her her job.
Walmart employee Johnathan LaFavor, who also struck this month, told The Nation that the news of Lopez’s firing “makes me real angry.” He said he would tell his Tampa, Florida, co-workers that the firing was illegal, and that “through OUR Walmart, we have a way to fight back.”
A May report by the union-funded nonprofit American Rights at Work—Jobs With Justice counted 150 incidents of alleged intimidation against activist Walmart employees, including the terminations of six early OUR Walmart leaders since 2011. Walmart contractors or subcontractors have fired at least seven workers active in the union-backed groups Warehouse Workers United or Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee; four were reinstated after workers at Walmart’s Elwood, Illinois, distribution center went on strike last fall.
Walmart has previously denied retaliating against employees, but has not denied holding mandatory meetings to discourage workers from joining OUR Walmart. The company did not respond to a June 10 inquiry regarding whether any of the strikers would be “permanently replaced.” Federal labor law generally prohibits firing or otherwise punishing workers (though not always “permanently replacing” them) for participating in strikes or other protected forms of “concerted activity.”
While acknowledging that strikes pose a risk of retaliation, OUR Walmart activists have described their strikes as a way of highlighting and punishing such intimidation. OUR Walmart strategist Dan Schlademan told The Nation last month that while “there is always a risk that a company like Walmart will break the law,” striking offers workers’ “strongest way to respond to Walmart retaliation, and I think all of these workers understand that.” “That’s why we’re doing this,” San Leandro, California, striker Dominic Ware said during the most recent strike, “to get rid of the fear and put an end to retaliation.” Strikers who traveled to Arkansas this month said that more of their co-workers would have joined them if they didn’t worry it would cost them their jobs.
In a Monday email to The Nation, a Walmart garden center employee identified that risk as his reason for not speaking up. “I do not think I have ever hated any one thing in my life” as much as Walmart, said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “So why don’t I protest? We call the ‘open door policy,’ in which we are supposed to be able to voice [our] concern to management without fear of reprisal, the ‘out the door’ policy. Complain, get fired…. Those protesters will be terminated, or forced to quit. Walmart does not tolerate dissenters.”
Lopez told The Nation that following her firing, “I want to be more involved, because there are other associates that are going to continue to go through what I’m going through, and not be a voice, and be silent, and be afraid.” “I’m a believer in my goals,” she added, “and I want to make our associates a better life at Walmart.”
Building off a year of strikes and work stoppages, OUR Walmart activists recently went to Arkansas to protest at the company's shareholder meeting.