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The Roundup

Oklahoma Walmart Workers Join National Protest

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Posted 10.18.12

A small group of “renegade” Walmart employees in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, without the aid of organized labor, went on strike earlier this week, joining fellow associates from around the country, reported The Huffington Post.

“Unlike last week’s strikers, who were nearly all members of the union-backed worker organization OUR Walmart, the Oklahomans had no outside assistance putting together their action,” the site reported. Walmart workers began striking last week—the first retail worker strike in the company’s 50-year history.

Jeffrey Landry, David Gibbs and Nathan Beck took inspiration from national reports about strikes in cities like Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Chicago, Orlando, and Washington, D.C., and stood in their employer’s parking lot Sunday and Monday holding handmade signs bemoaning slashed hours, low wages, and unfit working conditions.

The total number of people who’ve striked nationwide hovers at 88, “a drop of water in an ocean” of Walmart’s total 1.4 million employees, HuffPo reported.

Strikers say the reason organized actions against Walmart have been so rare—as well as why the current strikes remain so small—is that Walmart intimidates employees who try to organize. According to Beck and Landry, Walmart managers held a meeting on Saturday in Sapulpa to discourage associates from striking.

“The meeting changed the whole atmosphere of the store,” said Landry, who wasn’t working on Saturday but heard about the meeting through colleagues. “Clearly it intimidated [people].”

Landry told the site’s reporter he’d returned to work Tuesday to find his schedule returned to its normal number of hours—”They’re covering their butts,” he said—but Beck was called in for a meeting with managers who told him “they couldn’t guarantee my job would be protected.”

Walmart executives have said the strikers aren’t “representative” of the company’s “entire associate base,” who are generally satisfied with their jobs.

“We do surveys and our associate satisfaction scores have been improving over the past couple years, which runs counter to what a few workers who show up at events that the unions put them up to would say,” David Tovar, vice president of communications, told HuffPo.

“The strikers are demanding that the company reinstate employees who have been fired for participating in Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a membership organization of current and former workers who hope to improve working conditions at the retailer,” The Nation reported. “They’re also demanding that Walmart stop retaliating against workers who engage in these legally protected activities.”

The Nation speculated that Walmart won’t be able to “quell this level of unrest easily.”

The OUR Walmart strikers are back in their stores, but they have told the company that if their demands are not met, Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year—will be a rowdy one, with strikes and actions at stores all over the country.

Colby Harris, a 32-year-old employee in Dallas, told The Huffington Post he’s worked for Walmart for three years and makes $8.90 an hour. Meanwhile, Walmart’s four owners, grandchildren to founder Sam Walton, enjoy a combined wealth of $107.8 billion, more than the bottom almost 50 percent of Americans combined—and they’re getting richer.

From The Nation:

Walmart may raise wages in response to these strikes. Matt Stoller, on the Naked Capitalism website, reports that according to the Federal Reserve, the last time Walmart faced real labor unrest—in 2006, after the UFCW ran a public education campaign that was far less aggressive than OUR Walmart’s actions—the company responded by raising wages in some 700 stores.

To be sure, as Walmart never tires of pointing out, the strikers are a small fraction of the its 1.4 million US employees. But if Walmart employees win changes in their workplace this way, workers everywhere may realize that it can be done. Says UFCW spokesman Evan Yeats, “If we change Walmart, we change things not just for our members but for the working class in America.” Now that would be “transformational.”

“They say [these strikes] are an attempt to get attention,” Harris told HuffPo. “But if we were getting the attention we deserved, we wouldn’t be protesting. I’m not being paid for these days. We’re taking off work to protest—obviously there must be something wrong.”

Holly Wall, News Editor