Walmart Strikers Challenge Culture of Threats, Fear
On the seventh anniversary of working at a Walmart store in a Chicago suburb, Charmaine Givens-Thomas nervously spoke into a bullhorn to explain why she was standing outside a Walmart parking lot so early on this cold morning of the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday to bargain hunters and merchants alike.
"I’m standing up for all Walmart workers around the country so Walmart will give us a living wage and so Walmart will stop retaliating against us when we speak up," she told the cheering crowd of around 250 supporters, drawn from an assortment of community and labor groups. "I want them to understand we just want to be able to pay our bills from one paycheck to the next and for them to respect us."
Across the country, in more than 1,000 actions, Walmart workers and supporters from the broader public delivered the same message last Friday, according to Organization United for Respect Walmart. More commonly known as OUR Walmart, it is an association of Walmart workers launched in June 2011 with support from Making Change At Walmart, a community-labor coalition previously initiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
The actions ranged from the embryonic to the fully grown: A lone worker in Maryland went out on strike against illegal retaliation and threats by Walmart management, then handed out to customers leaflets she had made while carrying her homemade picket sign. Meanwhile, at the Paramount store in southern California, more than 1,00 workers and, primarily, sympathizers protested. There were successful rallies in big cities all over the country–such as Dallas, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Milwaukee, Washington D.C., and Miami.
Workers and allies even protested in Little Rock, Ark., in the shadow of the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth. Cayt Lawley joined the protest there, not the suburban Walmart where she worked until she was fired. She has charged Walmart with an unfair labor practice, arguing they dismissed her because she was a leading spokesperson for an organizer of workers in her store, not–as Walmart says–for the minor slip-up that her supervisor initially said was no problem.
"Now my co-workers are afraid to talk with me. They fear retaliation, for their jobs. It’s really sad," she says. "But the strikes were phenomenal. I know there’s a buzz in the stores. Seeing workers who struck walking back in is really empowering. I think membership will go up."