Labor Board Sides With Workers: Wal-Mart Can’t Silence Employees Any Longer

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This post originally appeared in The Nation.


Walmart Protest Los Angeles
A protester holds up a sign during a protest against Wal-Mart on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million workers won a big victory Monday when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the retail giant had broken the law by firing and harassing employees who spoke out — and in some cases went on strike — to protest the company’s poverty pay and abusive labor practices.

The federal agency will prosecute Wal-Mart’s illegal firings and disciplinary actions involving more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June as part of a growing movement of company employees. The ruling is likely to accelerate the burgeoning protest movement among Wal-Mart employees, upset with low pay, stingy benefits, arbitrary work schedules and part-time jobs.

Over the past year, protests against the world’s largest private employer have escalated, led by OUR Walmart, a nationwide network of Wal-Mart workers. Last fall, the group announced that it would hold rallies outside Wal-Mart stores in dozens of cities on the day after Thanksgiving — the busiest shopping day of the year, typically called Black Friday. In response, Wal-Mart executives threatened disciplinary action against workers who participated in rallies and strikes, even though they are perfectly legal. Speaking on national television, Wal-Mart spokesperson David Tovar threatened workers, saying that “there could be consequences” for employees who did not come to work for scheduled shifts on Black Friday. Despite the threats, several hundred Wal-Mart workers joined tens of thousands of supporters at the Black Friday protests around the country.

In June, over 100 striking Wal-Mart workers, along with allies from labor, community and faith-based groups, trekked to Wal-Mart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, the company headquarters, to tell shareholders about the company’s abusive practices. When these workers returned to work, Wal-Mart — hoping to knock the wind out of the sails of the growing movement — systematically fired at least twenty-three workers and disciplined another forty-three employees despite their legally recognized, protected absences.

In its statement, the NLRB explained: “During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Wal-Mart stores in California and Texas, Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests on November 22, 2012.” It also ruled that “Wal-Mart stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington unlawfully threatened, disciplined and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests.”

Under the NLRB ruling, Wal-Mart could be required to reinstate the workers and award them back pay. The board could also require Wal-Mart to inform and educate all employees of their legally protected rights. (Federal labor law doesn’t allow the NLRB to impose fines on companies that violate workers’ rights).

This is not the first time that the NLRB has sanctioned Wal-Mart for labor violations. In California, the Board recently decided to prosecute Wal-Mart for eleven violations of federal labor law for threats that managers made around Black Friday last year. In Kentucky, Wal-Mart reached a settlement with Aaron Lawson, whom the company fired after he distributed flyers and spoke out against the company’s attempts to silence those who called for better wages and consistent hours. As part of the settlement, Wal-Mart agreed to rehire Lawson and provide full back wages for the time that he was out of work.

In fact, Wal-Mart has a long history of law-breaking, not only in retaliation for employee activism but also in exploiting immigrants, paying women less than men for the same jobs, breaking environmental laws and bribing Mexican officials, among many other infractions. Wal-Mart has also recently earned well-deserved negative publicity for its complicity in thwarting safety improvements at Bangladesh sweatshops that make clothes sold in Wal-Mart stores. One of them was the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building near Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, where last April at least 1,100 workers were killed after the building collapsed — the deadliest garment industry disaster in history.

Prior to the extended strike in June, American Rights at Work/Jobs with Justice released a report documenting Wal-Mart’s extensive and systematic efforts to intimidate employees. At that time, there were more than 150 incidents in stores across the country, but that number has now skyrocketed in response to the growing organization and militancy of Wal-Mart workers.

“It is time for Wal-Mart to obey the law,” said Joseph Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has been supporting Wal-Mart workers’ organizing efforts. “A message was sent loud and clear, far and wide, that the company must change.”

“Wal-Mart continues to show that it’s afraid to have real conversations about creating better jobs, but would rather scare us into silence,” said Tiffany Beroid, a Wal-Mart worker from Laurel, Maryland. “But change at Wal-Mart is too important to our economy and for our families for us to stop speaking out.”

The new ruling makes it more likely that many more Wal-Mart workers will be willing to stand up to the company and participate in OUR Walmart’s efforts to improve pay and working conditions. In fact, the NLRB decision happened to come on the same day that OUR Walmart was announcing another series of Black Friday protests, scheduled for November 29. OUR Walmart leaders said that the number of rallies and demonstrations this year will exceed those that occurred a year ago.

Last week, in anticipation of the Black Friday protests, 500 labor, faith-based and community activists rallied in front of a Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighborhood, and fifty-four were arrested. On Monday, Wal-Mart employees and community supporters in Ohio — about 50 in Evendale (a Cincinnati suburb) and seventy in Dayton — demonstrated outside Wal-Mart stores to build momentum for the Black Friday actions.

At this year’s Black Friday protests, workers will demand that Wal-Mart increase hours so that employees work full-time, ensuring a minimum wage of $25,000 a year, and end the company’s illegal retaliation against those who speak out for better jobs. Bill Simon, CEO of Wal-Mart US, recently told financial analysts that 475,000 employees make more than this amount. In doing so, Simon confirmed that more than half and as many as two-thirds of the company’s American employees — as many as 825,000 workers — make less than $25,000 a year because of low wages and not getting enough hours. (In what has become yet another embarrassment for the company, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported Monday that a Wal-Mart store in Canton, Ohio, had organized a food drive for its poorly paid employees. The store set up several plastic bins in an employees-only area with a sign that read: “Please donate food items here so our Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner”).

Raising Wal-Mart workers’ wages to at least $25,000 would not only lift them and their families out of poverty but also stimulate economic growth and create additional jobs in other sectors because of what economists call the “multiplier effect.”

Wal-Mart has become a symbol — and a major cause — of the nation’s widening gap between the super-rich and the rest. The company’s controlling family, the Waltons, have a net worth of more than $144 billion. This is more than the total wealth of 40 percent of all Americans — over 125 million people. Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke received over $20 million in compensation last year. Last year Wal-Mart made $17 billion in profits.

Even Fortune magazine — hardly a radical rag — observed that “Wal-Mart can afford to give its workers a 50% raise,” without hurting its stock value.

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).
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  • Anonymous

    As long as there are people willing to work for a low wage, then there will be corporations willing to pay that wage.

  • Leslie from the Midwest

    You know…the amazing thing is…there are 360 (give or take) million people in this country. Not all of them need the money, but just imagine subtracting 360 million out of 1 billion of that 17 billion dollars…to give each citizen of this country 1 million dollars. What jubilee that would be…. It could wipe out all debt. Send people to college who really wanted to be educated. Start companies. Fix teeth. As for health care for all–it should be a free, single-payer system–period. And hospitals and doctors here have got to stop using a bogus, over-priced “master charge list” (Read: “Bitter Pill,” the article published in Time Magazine)–and stop bankrupting the populous.
    How many billionaires do we have in this country? Sheesh–Mark Zuckerberg could write a check to one of us and not feel a thing. It’s only money. His income is going to be perpetual.The perspective I now have, realizing there is actually enough money to wipe out all debt and wipe the slate clean for all of us to start over…astounds me.
    But there is no such thing as generosity of that scale. So we continue on this ideological, downward spiral.
    Good luck, fellow citizens who are stuck in the perpetual vortex of debt slavery…and you trolls who attack what I’m saying…just imagine what you could do with a million dollars before you gouge my words with insults on how stupid I am for having these thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    Uhhm I think your math is a little off. 360,000,000 would only equal a million for 360 people…1,000,000 for 360,000,000 would be in the neighborhood of 360,000,000,000,000. Not calling you stupid, and I like your generous thoughts :)

  • Grandma Barbie

    Why would people have no choice? Slavery went away with the 13th Amendment. If they don’t like the working conditions, they can leave and make room for someone who wants to work without
    whining.

  • Grandma Barbie

    Why should people be given full-time jobs? Full-time jobs are *earned* – not dropped into the laps of random whiners. I worked 8 years before a full-time slot opened at my store and I jumped all over it. But I didn’t get it by crabbing and moaning and howling, “Unfair!” It *was* fair. There were others with seniority.

  • Stink

    And to think I thought I was treated bad while employed at The National Institutes of Health,a Federal Government agency.

  • Stink

    Yes I wished more people thought of this. Thank you for taking the time to blog.

  • Kia Ray

    Walmart’s strategy is to hire people on a part-time basis to not have to pay them the dismal benefits offered by the company. So if you’re classified as a part-time employee, but work full-time hours without the benefit of full-time classification, you’re being used. I’m in full support of these workers organizing and standing up for themselves.

  • Dave Buford

    “Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.”
    John L. Lewis

  • Dave Buford

    To deprive workers the right to assemble, is depriving the workers a happy work place. Happy workers makes better workers, better workers makes happy customers. Bottom line

  • Anonymous

    ^ blame-the-poor-bot posts on everything related to Walmart, so sick of it. Yes, you’re right, money talks. But if thats the only tactic you have, then the Waltons already won. The 6 walton heirs can speak as loud as the poorest 40% of this country combined, cuz they have the same amount of money.

    Yes, if you can afford some free range free trade organic whatever, go for it, couldn’t hurt. But don’t sneer at other people who can’t afford it. If you have ready access to an alternative, take advantage, but don’t sneer at people who might have to spend time and money to drive farther to find that alternative. Blaming poor people is still stupid, even if you blame them for “left-wing” grievances instead of “right-wing” ones. This country is run by the rich for the rich, and blaming us isn’t going to help us take power

  • Anonymous

    wow, for 8 years they were fully staffed without making a single new hire?

  • Anonymous

    as long as people don’t see any alternative.. as long as there’s not enough solidarity to stand and fight…

  • Anonymous

    why not ask for more? and if they say no, why not try to strengthen your bargaining position by teaming up with coworkers and supporters in your community? thats how we ended slavery BTW

  • Anonymous

    why not ask for more? and if they say no, why not try to strengthen your bargaining position by teaming up with coworkers and supporters in your community? your advice to these people is “just quit”? As if having ‘quit Walmart’ on your resume is going to land you a great job somewhere else? THAT is absurd

  • Terri EC Mom5

    The workers need mass collective walk-outs by all Walmart employees. I’m all for worker’s rights. Screw Walmart and their bullying threat tactics.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    I graduated & got my BA December of 2012 and still haven’t found a job. I have had only 1 interview in the last 10 months. I’m worried since my student loans are coming due.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorta on the fence about this. The customer service is so poor at our Walmart that I don’t think they deserve more money. I think pay increases should be commensurate with hard work and giving a damn about the customer’s need on the very rare occasion that I need assistance. NO, I don not think paying them more will result in employees giving a damn. Maybe it IS a low moral issue.

  • Anonymous

    I think most employees WOULD give a damn and would provide better customer service if they had evidence their company stands behind them and supports them. It is defeating and demeaning to go to a drudgery job when you think you don’t matter or that your company doesn’t value your contribution. Many workers feel stuck in those positions, unable to survive on what little they earn, yet unable to find a better paying job where they have more opportunities. It’s a vicious cycle, but I blame the company for more customer service, not the individuals working in the stores and dealing with customers.

  • Venus Bradley

    That is the lie they told you in order to keep you there as a part-time peon for 8 years. I worked as a manager at a retail store and we were told by corporate to only hire part-time employees (but expect them to have open availability) not because a full-time position had to be earned but because we didn’t want to pay for health insurance or breaks. So we were forced to make great employees work 4 1/2 shifts because in our state they don’t get breaks if they work less than 5 hours in order to not have to pay them while on the clock. We had tons of part-time people, most of which had to work second and third jobs, not because they weren’t great employees who deserved a full-time job but because someone in corporate made a fiscal decision in order to save some money. It is a scam to tell people they have to earn a full-time job.

  • Leslie from the Midwest

    Yep. I’m a one-can dumb@$$. See apology and re-calculation below. ;)

  • Leslie from the Midwest

    john…You really think it’s just THAT easy to find another job, huh? You are an obvious right wing troll. Just keep tossing out your careless, thoughtless talking point as though it’s matter-of-fact and everyone else is an idiot. You deserve all the backlash you can get.

  • Roberta Lambert
  • Anonymous

    That is proof that Degree type education does not mean EMPLOYMENT.

  • Anonymous

    When Justice walks or gets kicked out the door, Charity slides in.

  • JOE BLOW

    They want Workers
    Demoralized
    Demobilized
    MisInformed
    Submissive
    -But it isn’t working!! the more you push walmart, the more we push back!
    Boycott Walmart

  • https://twitter.com Angela Garcia as NeonMosfet

    Proof that the Gilded Age never left. Where is it written that only a corrupt government can be a totalitarian dictatorship?

  • Anonymous

    I suspect the fascist talibanista’s on the Supreme Court will find a way to side with Wal Mart on this issue.

  • Anonymous

    1. Fair pay has nothing to do with the service you personally receive.

  • Anonymous

    Trader Joe’s ALSO treats and pays its workers very decently. For many years,it has even given part-time workers health benefits. The store near me has almost no turn-over, and the workers there go WAY out of their way to help customers.

  • Anonymous

    Barbie on food stamps? So poor that her employer holds a drive to give her food on the holidays? Did you have to work TWO jobs just to make ends meet? If not- it is YOU who shouldn’t complain about workers wanting a decent wage.

  • Levi Schrock

    Have you ever worked for a company that didn’t care about you and payed you low wages? Customers treat you like dirt on a constant basis and you are WAY out-maned by shoppers behind a customer service desk. If not you are the only one behind customer service and try the best you can but you can only move so fast and the people in line start lashing out at you? Oh yeah you bet it is a morality issue, when you step back, and ask what am I doing this for. $8.25/hr……… Don’t pass judgement on people until you have worked for wal-mart…

  • Terri EC Mom5

    So true. Even when you do everything you’re told to do or sold on the idea that you’re “supposed to do” in order to improve your chances in life and improve your career pay but it’s like you’ve been sold a lie which comes with a $60,000 price tag. People who are Generation X or beyond have been completely screwed and have no chance for career advancement or higher earning possibilities. If I would have known this was the outcome, I wouldn’t have attended school and saved myself the tens of thousands in debt.

  • diogenes

    We have to circle the wagons on this one. Walmart is the vanguard of the fourth reich, a bulwark of capitalist feudalism, if they are forced by citizen concensus to express even a small token of overt humanity we are all doomed, the sky will fall and the people will see that justice is possible. Amerikan capitalism is in peril, we have to call out the dogs, unleash the thugs. Remember, the blood of the poor leaves no stain on the collective memory when filtered through the meatgrinder of public relations, and nobody can relate to the poor like walmart.

  • diogenes

    Customer care costs too much. Walmart is a monopoly, you shop there for the sacred, holy low prices. They don’t got to show you no stinkin care. I know, it’s very hard to comprehend that they think of you as merely a potential employee, deserving of the same treatment. If you don’t like the atmosphere of oppression, third rate, low rent, truck stop, raunchy, shut up, pay up and get out then you have no appriciation for the true Walmart spirit.

  • diogenes

    Some prople would rather starve than shop at walmart. Does that surprise you?

  • diogenes

    You are absolutely right John. Disobedient workers are the height of absurdity. They insist on dignity, fairness, humanity, where do they get off? I’m sure you are a very obedient citizen, don’t forget to report all suspecious persons at once, John, theres a good lad.

  • diogenes

    Walmart is grateful for your devotion and loyal boot licking. Be sure to drop by and pick up your pay, eight bucks is a lot of money, despite what all those malcontents say.

  • Anonymous

    “beenwiser Wattdidusay

    • 2 days ago
    …If you have ready access to an alternative, take advantage, but don’t sneer at people who might have to spend time and money to drive farther to find that alternative.”

  • Cynthia Davis

    about time

  • https://twitter.com Angela Garcia as NeonMosfet

    Now, the government has little choice, but to side with the ;workers

  • Anonymous

    Nope. I’m not surprised. Are you surprised that so many people are unwilling to starve themselves?

  • Anonymous

    A BA is just an expensive piece of paper that says you know how to memorize stuff.

  • Anonymous

    there’s is no reason they can’t pay their employees 15.00 dollars an hour, well there is the one excuse they want more profits on the employees backs. Please support all of your American workers, after all you are one of them that will benefit from this.