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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Workplace injustice at Walmart

- by Torryn Taylor

On August 7, the National Organization for Women, the National Workers Rights Board, and Jobs with Justice hosted “Organizing as a Civil Right: the struggle for dignity and respect at Walmart”. The briefing featured the testimonies of current and former Walmart associates and guest workers in the Walmart supply chain.

One former Walmart associate from Gulf Breeze, Florida, revealed a shocking inconsistency between Walmart’s self-proclaimed fair practices and labor policies and associates’ actual experiences of unfair treatment. A mother of three, Angela Williamson had been guaranteed a minimum of 30 hours of work per week when she was hired, which she needed to support herself and her family. However, two weeks into the job, Ms. Williamson quickly became aware that she would have no control over her scheduling or the number hours she was given. She soon found herself working merely eight to twelve pay hours a week. When she complained, her management offered to cut her hours even further so that she could qualify for government benefits.

Other workers at the briefing cited abuses such as having their hours cut, only to be told they would later be needed to work overtime hours without overtime pay. Ernestine Bassett, an associate at a Walmart store in Laurel, Maryland, recalled even being instructed when and for how long she would be allowed to use the restroom.

When it became apparent that these problems were happening not just attheir individual stores but at Walmart stores across the nation, Ms. Bassett and Ms. Williamson decided to join the newly formed Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), where they now play active and leading roles in the fight for justice.

OUR Walmart is a cohort of current and former Walmart associates and employees who work to spread the message of Walmart’s unfair labor practices and who fight to change the way the nation’s largest private employer treats its employees. The organization provides support to Walmart associates when they speak out against unfair working conditions, low pay, limited work hours, and abusive management practices. Ms. Williamson, who was fired by Walmart, believes that the reason was her affiliation with OUR Walmart. Ms. Bassett continues to work at Walmart, but is uncertain about the future of her employment, since there has been a rash of firings of Walmart associates who have spoken up for themselves and their co-workers.

Author and activist Bill Fletcher noted the “systematic nature of barbarism” under which Walmart operates: the hiring and firing of vulnerable workers who, all too often, have no recourse to fight back or stand up for their basic workplace rights. The National Organization for Women has declared Walmart a National Merchant of Shame.

As America’s largest company and the largest retailer in the world, Walmart wields incredible influence in the retail and logistics industries. And with more than 4,000 stores and 1.4 million employees, Walmart’s sphere of influence extends to the entire economy. The Walton family's wealth alone equals the bottom 42% of American families' wealth combined, and Walmart's 2010 revenue was $408.2 billion. Yet Walmart associates are forced to rely on the public safety net to supplement the basic services they and their families need to survive. The basic injustices that these employees face on a daily basis, in the end, affect us all.

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