By Rick Thompson
At the end of election season, I was recruited to be part of an organizing committee with OURWalmart in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group is planning actions in eight Bay Area Walmart stores on Thanksgiving/ Black Friday. These actions include walk-outs, sick-outs (calling off work in protest), leafleting and petition circulating, and flash mob demonstrations inside and outside of Walmart stores.
Though OURWalmart’s broader goal is to demand that Walmart treat its employees with respect, providing them with livable wages and benefits, these strikes are not economic strikes like the ones recently seen at Raley’s. These strikes are Unfair Labor Practice strikes, in which workers are permitted to participate per the National Labor Relations Act. Because Walmart has refused to address NLRA violations filed with the National Labor Relations Board, namely retaliation for participating in concerted activity, workers have begun to strike in locations across the country.
Walmart has retaliated against employees for participating in this concerted activity by cutting their hours, intimidating them with threats, unfairly “coaching” employees (coaching being the Walmart lingo for write-ups), and by terminating them for arbitrary reasons.
In anticipation of Black Friday demonstrations, Walmart released a memo to its managerial staff reminding them that, under the NLRA, they may not:
- Spy on employees suspected of participating in concerted activity;
- Make promises of raises/promotions in exchange for not participating or for revealing information;
- Interrogate them about suspected activity and other employees’ participation; or
- Make threats to them about participating in such activity.
Nonetheless, Walmart has dispatched staff from its home office in Bentonville, AR, to several stores, including stores in the Bay Area where some actions have already taken place. (More about the memo here.)
Many of the actions we are organizing are taking place in the days leading up to Thanksgiving as a way of bringing attention to Black Friday strikes and boycotts.
The photo of me above is from the action I participated in on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at the Walmart location in San Leandro. The action was staged in memory of Enrique Pinilla, an employee there who had unexpectedly passed away the previous week. With the blessing of the employee’s family, OURWalmart held a respectful procession in which a local church leader led a prayer and employees were invited to share their stories and thoughts about Enrique.
The following day, I participated in a leafleting/petition-circulating action at the Walmart in Richmond. This location had recently undergone a remodel, during which an interim manager (Mr. Art Van Riper) made several violent threats to employees. He threatened an African-American employee that he would put a rope around his neck and hang him, told another employee in the parking lot that he would run her over with his car if she didn’t get out of the way, and also remarked to employees that he wanted to shoot anyone who joined/was a member of a union. Despite these comments, this manager was not dismissed; he was allowed to return to his Bakersfield location at the end of the remodel. When several employees staged an action in protest of management’s indifferent handling of the situation, they were disciplined and/or terminated.
Several members of OURWalmart (including the aforementioned terminated workers from this store) and I distributed flyers to patrons as they entered and exited the store, asking them to sign a petition requesting that Walmart rehire the terminated employees and make Mr. Van Riper apologize/resign. The manager called mall security; however we were acting well within our legal rights and there was nothing they could do. In the course of an hour, we distributed 500 flyers and collected more than 90 signatures. Though we were not asking patrons to do so, several shoppers were so disgusted that they turned around and took their business elsewhere.
Another part of planning the Black Friday actions is recruiting employees to participate by walking off the job or calling off in protest. While talking to employees in San Leandro and Fairfield, I’ve learned that most of them have the same concerns about wages, working conditions, and benefits, but they are afraid to join. Walmart has succeeded in creating a culture of fear and a sense of helplessness amongst its employees. After all, these workers have seen their coworkers disciplined, maligned, and mistreated for joining OURWalmart. Many employees hesitate to join because they have been led to believe that they are next in line for certain promotions, which they know they will not get if management finds out they have joined OURWalmart, or because they are worried that management will cut their hours or fire them if they join.
We work to dispel these fears. Much of the fear is based on a lack of information: most employees do not know that it is illegal for Walmart to fire them for participating in concerted activity. Even though some employees have been terminated after striking and walking off, most have not been. We remind these employees that Walmart sent out that memo asking its management to be very careful about how they handle concerted activity; we remind them that Walmart is dispatching its home office cronies to their stores and camera rooms to intimidate employees to keep them quiet. As afraid as these employees are of speaking out, Walmart is so much more afraid.
Our members can show their support and participate in Black Friday actions in their area by visiting corporateactionnetwork.org and these websites: