A Walmart striker in Bentonville. (Credit: Michael Blain)
Bentonville, Arkansas—A morning of protests got off to an early start today, as striking employees and supporters boarded buses just after 6:15 am CST for an unannounced visit to the home of Walmart board member Jim Walton, the billionaire CEO of Arvest Bank Group. Around 7, when workers stepped off the bus, police were already present, and prevented them from walking along the long private road to Walton’s house. Instead, workers stood along the sleepy neighborhood’s tree-lined sidewalk, hoisting green signs with the five-fingered logo of their union-backed organization: a hand using two fingers to shape an “O,” for “OUR Walmart.”
“We came here respectfully, and we will leave respectfully,” San Leandro, California, striker Dominic Ware told the crowd, as he held up a giant check for $8.81—an IBISworld estimate (contested by the company) of Walmart’s average hourly wage. “We would just like Jim Walton to at least come talk to us, so he can see that these are associates.” Speaking after Ware, Maryland worker Cindy Murray also emphasized the a-word, which Walmart uses to describe its employees: “We are associates. It means equal partners. Do any of you feel equal today?” Fists raised in the air, most of the crowd yelled “No!” One or two answered, “Yes!”
The strikers tried to leave the blown-up check on the grass at the outer edge of Walton property, beneath the mailbox, but relented after a police officer told them that would be “littering.” Then the OUR Walmart activists marched towards downtown Bentonville, singing a customized version of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”: “One thing we did right was the day we decided to strike… I’ll be buried in my grave ‘fore I’ll ever be a Walmart slave.”
As I’ve reported, OUR Walmart members have been on strike since last week, alleging retaliation against workers who’ve organized for improvements in their wages and working conditions. Strikers and supporters are in Bentonville this week for the retail giant’s annual shareholder meeting on Friday, as are thousands of other Walmart employees chosen by company management. On Monday, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg described the week’s demonstrations as “the latest union-organized publicity stunt made up of mostly union activists and a small and insignificant amount of associates participating.” Asked about today’s protests, Lundberg referred The Nation to his prior remarks.
Striking San Leandro Walmart cashier Shay Bell told The Nation she was disappointed at Walmart’s refusal to send a management representative out to hear from workers at any of the week’s various protests. “I think that was highly disrespectful,” she said, “that we had to stand outside and sing to them.” Still, she said, “I believe that we’re getting our point across.”
At the office of Walton Enterprises, the holding company of the family that started Walmart and owns half its stock, workers tried this morning to present the same blown-up check to a security guard but were rebuffed. In the Bentonville town square, facing founder Sam Walton’s original store—now a museum—a series of workers described their grievances to supporters and fellow strikers. “We have to make tough decisions every day,” said Chicago striker Tyrone Robinson. “Whether we gonna eat our next meal…what bill we gonna pay, how we gonna support ourselves and our kids. Sleeping in cars—it’s a disgrace.”
The speak-out was followed by a break, during which some workers kept their energy up with the “OUR Walmart Roll Call”—standing in a circle, clapping and chanting, and taking turns each introducing themselves with quick slogans that rhyme with their names. Then the strikers reconvened for a brief series of prayers and bible readings before walking to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art, which was founded by Alice Walton, and has free general admission sponsored by Walmart. Noting that the Walton family has donated several pieces to the museum’s collection, the strikers offered a museum official a life-size cut-out they’d created of Rosie the Riveter with the OUR Walmart symbol. The museum official deflected their offer to display it in the gallery, but told the strikers they could visit the museum as long as they didn’t protest inside: “You’re welcome to Crystal Bridges, as any other guest, as long as you act as any other guest. I would hate to have to have you escorted off the property because you chose not to act like any other guest.”
Green Shirts and Blue Shirts
The OUR Walmart members’ mid-day walk through the Walmart-funded museum—mostly quiet, single-file, in green shirts—coincided with a visit by some of the blue-shirted Walmart employees flown in by the company, and some Walmart managers who accompanied them. The two groups of employees looked at each other but mostly kept their distance. “It’s like they look at me like I’m crazy, because I’m wearing this, but don’t know I fight for them,” striker Gerardo Paladan told The Nation.
At the urging of an organizer, Seattle worker Sara Gilbert and a couple other green-shirted strikers struck up a conversation with a couple of their blue-shirted counterparts as they sat outside the museum on a bench. Interviewed after the OUR Walmart activists had left, two employees they’d talked to spoke glowingly about their experience as Walmart’s guests in Bentonville. Cathy Silva, a customer service manager, described the trip, which includes speech from top executives and an Elton John concert, as a “life-changing experience.” “They do care about their associates a lot,” she said, “and take care of them.” Her companion, a zone manager, said the experience “makes you want to take that next step up for sure, put a little bit more in.” (Like many companies, Walmart has employees whose title is “manager” but are not considered supervisors under labor law because they don’t hire or fire other employees.)
Asked about the green-shirted strikers they’d just spoken with, Silva said she hadn’t realized they were on strike. “I didn’t even get to talk to them. I just got introduced, said hi to them and that was it.” As for OUR Walmart’s work stoppage, “I’ve never heard anything about it so I couldn’t really respond to that.” “They’re union,” said the zone manager. “They’re the ones that they warn us about.” Then she laughed, said she was going to get some coffee and left.
Interviewed later about the same conversation, OUR Walmart activist Gilbert said that she’d introduced herself to the two blue-shirted workers and asked them if they’d heard about OUR Walmart. “They said ‘yeah,’ and it didn’t seem like it was a very good ‘yeah,’ but they had heard about us.” Gilbert added that when the OUR Walmart activists asked about issues at work, “they were all like really quiet about it,” and then “we just had small talk.” She said that OUR Walmart members had met greater success visiting employees at area Walmart stores earlier in the week, and suggested that wearing OUR Walmart shirts today had made other workers more scared to talk to them. “We could reach everybody if we just get the opportunity,” she said.
Most of the blue-shirted Walmart employees in the museum cafeteria this afternoon declined to be interviewed (“I don’t know if we’re permitted to socialize with media,” said one). A group of Washington employees at one table were effusive in praising their trip, but became reticent once I brought up their green-shirted counterparts. “We have no comments about that,” said one. “They can do their own thing, but we’ll do our own,” said a second. “They’re in the wrong dress attire for us,” a third said with a laugh.
Lancaster, Texas, OUR Walmart activist Colby Harris told The Nation that he’d repeatedly seen Walmart management swoop in to disrupt or avert potential conversations between OUR Walmart members and the workers brought to town by Walmart as their paths crossed over the week.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Wednesday’s pre-shareholder meeting for employees brought to town by Walmart included management speeches comments blasting OUR Walmart: “They’re paid to disrupt this week’s activities,” Walmart US COO Gisel Ruiz told the gathered associates, “and that is just plain wrong.” Walmart US CEO Bill Simon reportedly told employees, “People shouldn’t just assume that you’re not smart enough to know what a good job is.”
NOW Calls Out the Obamas
Today’s protests followed OUR Walmart events yesterday including a noon demonstration at Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters, and an evening forum focused on Walmart’s impact on communities and the broader economy. Speaking to a half-full Northwest Arkansas Community College auditorium and an online livestream audience, leaders from groups including Color of Change, the National Congress of Black Women and the National Organization for Women urged support and solidarity for the Walmart workers’ efforts.
Interviewed following the panel, NOW President Terri O’Neill told The Nation that “people have seen through the PR” and that Walmart would not be able to mollify its critics with cosmetic changes. Asked about the most prominent progressives to praise Walmart—President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama—O’Neill responded, “friends tell friends when they have screwed up and so we do.” Asked if she meant that the Obamas had “screwed up” by touting Walmart’s example in areas ranging from hiring veterans to healthy food, O’Neill said, “Oh yes. Oh absolutely.” She urged the White House to start “exercising leadership” to transform a Walmart business model she called “corrupting and corrupted.” “The White House,” said O’Neill, “should be leading the charge against the gross immorality of that business model.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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