The story of a Walmart strike

Published on People’s World, by David Bacon, Nov. 21, 2012.

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. – On past Black Fridays, the nation’s annual post-Thanksgiving shopping celebration, Walmart stores have seen such a crush of shoppers that people have been trampled trying to get through the doors.  On this coming Black Friday, however, shoppers are more likely to see protesting workers.  

People have been criticizing the chain’s low wages and unfair competition with local businesses for years.  But for a long time the company has been able to keep its workers from joining in.  Where it could, Walmart has tried to give itself a paternalistic, we’re-all-one-big-family face.  Where that hasn’t worked, it’s resorted to the age-old tactics of firings and fear.

But Walmart workers are waking up.  Supported by a number of unions, they’ve organized a series of work stoppages, the latest and most extensive of which will take place on Black Friday.  They call their organization OURWalmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) … //

… I could see that the Walmart workers, both working and fired, still cared for each other.  They too were not about to forget what the company had done, or let anyone else forget either.

At the door to the break room, a worker who’d clocked out, Dominic Ware, stood by as we laid our carnations on the floor in memory of Enrique.  Two store managers stood by watching us.  Another followed us, yelling in a loud voice that we had no right to be there.  He was especially bothered by photographs, and kept putting his hand in front of the camera to stop me from taking them.

It was pretty obvious that they wanted to disrupt what was intended to be a respectful and solemn remembrance for Enrique.  Even further, they tried to make absolutely sure that every worker in the store knew exactly how much the company hated what was happening.  Dominic stayed calm, an example to his coworkers that no one needed to be frightened.

Supporters and workers together put their flowers on the store floor.  I wondered how long it would take for managers to remove them, and all the evidence of this job action.

After we left the store, Dominic spoke at a short rally outside, while the sun set and it grew dark.  Nurses from the California Nurses Association, longshore and warehouse workers from the ILWU, machinist union representatives, young community activists and other supporters stood together with the Walmart workers.

Three workers from this store, Dominic Ware, Marsela Lopez-Navarro and Cecilia Gurule, had clocked out and joined the rally.  That took courage.  Everyone in the store knows the company not only hates unions, but also has fired workers who want to organize.

Once the rally was over, workers were unsure whether the company would let them return to their jobs.  So everyone got behind them and marched back to the door, where a manager met them.  Dominic, Cecilia and Marsela then read him a statement declaring their right to participate in collective action — the basic activity involved in forming a workers’ association or a union.  If the company tried to keep them off the job or retaliated against them, they warned, it would be a violation of Federal labor law.

Then we all walked back into the store, accompanying Dominic and Cecilia to the break room.  There the key test was whether they would be able to punch the time clock and go back to work.  It’s hard to describe how good it felt to see Dominic come out of the break room in his work vest and go back to his job.

I was never able to go back to work at National Semiconductor, or the other workplaces where I was fired.  In our Walmart demonstration there were fired workers who shared that bitter experience.  But for this one evening, we were able to help Dominic, Marsela and Cecelia do what should be their right without question – challenge their employer and declare their open support for the right to organize.

No one should have to be afraid that such a basic right of free thought, speech or association might cost them their job.  Yet the reality in this country is that it so often does.  And at Walmart, the human casualties are very much present.

But for one evening direct action by courageous workers, supported by people living in the community around them, kept firings from happening. That was a big step toward making that right something that exists in real life, not just on paper.
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