With 36;7 billion in profits squeezed from the labor of one million workers at 3,250 stores across the country last year, Wal-Mart deserves its reputation as the nation’s worst “workplace bully.” But the grievances against the huge discount chain, the largest private employer in the U.S. are not limited to its workers. A vast coalition of grassroots organizations is rising up in rage against Wal-Mart on issues ranging from its importation of sweatshop garments, its predatory underselling of independent retailers in towns and cities across the nation, as well as the starvation wages it pays its workers.
It’s also being challenged for its Scrooge-like practices. Just before Christmas, managers of a Wal-Mart store in Sterling Colorado agreed to permit a local charity group to place a big box outside the store for customers to donate toys for needy tots.
Susan Kraich who had organized the project said she had been elated one day to find the box nearly full. She returned a few hours later to find it empty.
When she confronted the manager, he admitted that he had ordered the toys put back on the shelves on grounds that customers may have stolen them. He told her he would replace the toys only if she produced receipts proving they had been bought in the first place. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to prove what was in there,” Kraich told the press. “I thought since Wal-Mart agreed to place the box, they were agreeing to keep an eye on it.”
Then there’s Wal-Mart’s “dead peasants insurance.”
Wal-Mart takes out life insurance policies on their employees, coyly referred to as “associates.” Wal-Mart names itself as the beneficiary. John Antonich, business agent of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 88, a meat cutters’ local in St. Louis told the World he had a phone call from a man who told him his wife died after working for Wal-Mart for many years. “He told me he got a check for $10,000 from the life insurance company but Wal-Mart got $40,000,” Antonich said.
In a similar case, he said, a man who had worked decades for Wal-Mart and was near retirement was forced by the company to transfer 18 times from one store to another, a clear attempt to force him to quit. “He died of a heart attack and his widow got $16,000 but Wal-Mart got $50,000,” said Antonich. In Plainview, Tx., Jane Sims lost her husband, Doug, a Wal-Mart worker, from a heart attack after 23 years of marriage. Wal-Mart collected $64,000 but his widow did not get a penny from the life insurance policy. She has sued Wal-Mart for their ghoulish preying on the dead. The practice is illegal in 29 states.
“Wal-Mart puts out all this crap about how benevolent they are. But this dead peasants insurance shows us how heartless they really are,” Antonich said. “This is not just an issue of union rights. It is an issue of the survival of hundreds of small retailers across the country who are being wiped out by Wal-Mart. This company is literally destroying small towns in the Midwest.”
are fighting back with a blizzard of lawsuits as well as a nationwide struggle to unionize the giant. A federal jury in Portland, Oregon, ruled last Dec. 19 in favor of 400 Wal-Mart workers who filed a lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of forcing them to work overtime without pay or face being fired.
However, it was not a class action lawsuit so only the 400 workers who joined in the lawsuit will be compensated.
Former Wal-Mart workers Carolyn Thiebes and Betty Alderson, both of whom worked in managerial positions at a Wal-Mart in Salem, filed the lawsuit. Wal-Mart managers, they testified, forced employees to clean up the store after they had clocked out. Wal-Mart managers, they said, reprimanded employees who demanded compensation for this overtime.
“I saw associates do work for the benefit of the company that they weren’t compensated for,” Thiebes testified. Thiebes, who oversaw payroll between 1992 and 1998, said managers instructed her to delete overtime and holiday pay of employees on a weekly basis. When she complained about this wage chiseling, she was transferred from the Salem store to Dallas, about 15 miles away. She was so fed up she found another job. “Morally, it wasn’t the right thing to do. I couldn’t stand it anymore.” Another hearing is scheduled to determine the award for the 400 employees.
At least 39 class action lawsuits in 30 states have been filed against Wal-Mart, making it the second biggest target of civil litigation after the federal government. The company reportedly paid $50 million two years ago to settle an off-the-clock lawsuit covering 69,000 workers in Colorado, and it recently paid $500,000 to 120 workers in Gallup, N.M., to settle an overtime lawsuit.
Two former Wal-Mart workers in Michigan sued Wal-Mart. Lindsay Ann Armantrout, one of the plaintiffs, told the World by telephone that if the court accepts their plea, current Wal-Mart workers in Michigan could benefit from a favorable class action ruling against the company’s bully tactics. Armantrout was hired by the Wal-Mart store in Grandville, Mich. and assigned to the store’s snack bar at $6.75 an hour. “I was pregnant, it was a job and they were hiring,” Armantrout said in a deposition. Armantrout charged that she often worked straight through her shift because she was not allowed to leave the grill unattended and management regularly brushed aside her requests for someone to spell her.
“Sometimes it would be, ‘We don’t have anyone to cover for you’ or ‘I’ll find somebody,’ but they didn’t.” Sometimes she was so tired she would sit at a booth when there were no customers, she said in her deposition. Management reprimanded her for taking these breaks even though they are promised by management.
Armantrout said her wages were shorted in other ways. After she punched out at night, managers demanded that she clean up the store. Even if they didn’t want to stay late, employees were stuck in the store because the doors were locked and they had to wait for a manager to agree to let them leave, she charged.
Armantrout said she demanded to be paid overtime and her bosses promised to “take care of it.” But when she checked her pay stub, the money was not there. “I’d just get tired of asking,” she said.
Martha Lair, the lead attorney in the Michigan lawsuit, told the World in a phone interview from her office in Denver, that if the Michigan court accepts their lawsuit as a class action, it would cover not only former but also 92,000 current employees of Wal-Mart in Michigan. “Our case is similar to the Oregon lawsuit in that Wal-Mart workers in Michigan were also required to work off the clock,” said Lair. “Wal-Mart is reporting billions in income each year and four of the ten richest people in the world are Wal-Mart heirs. They are getting that way because their employees are earning minimal wages and working off the clock. This is a company that has ridden the backs of their hourly employees to extreme profitability.”
Last Nov. 21, tens of thousands joined in a “People’s Campaign – Justice@Wal-Mart” at 125 Wal-Marts in 49 states. The slogan was, “America Can’t Live on a Wal-Mart Paycheck.” It was co-sponsored by the UFCW, the AFL-CIO, National Organization for Women (NOW) and more than 300 other grassroots organizations. “This Day of Action is not about protesting Wal-Mart,” said UFCW President Doug Dority. “We’re here to demonstrate our support for the Wal-Mart workers, our communities and American values.”
On an average, Wal-Mart workers earn $8.50 an hour for 28- to 32-hour workweeks. Over 700,000 Wal-Mart workers are without health insurance and 500,000 walk away from Wal-Mart jobs every year.
Dority pointed out that Wal-Mart faces dozens of lawsuits including the “largest sex discrimination lawsuit in history” and has been found guilty by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of “illegal surveillance, threats and intimidation” at stores in Denver, Orlando and Paris, Tex., where the UFCW is trying to organize the workers.
“Wal Mart’s claims that its ‘associates’ don’t want union representation rings hollow as the NLRB issues three new complaints against the retail giant,” charged a press release by the UFCW. “Workers in Denver are organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 and have suffered from Wal-Mart’s big bully tactics.” Wal-Mart goes on trial Feb. 10 for illegal surveillance of union supporters.
Antonich faxed to the World an internal Wal-Mart manual titled “Wal-Mart: A Manager’s Tool Box to Remaining Union Free.” It is marked “confidential” and lays out in painstaking detail the dirty tricks Wal-Mart managers are expected to use to deny their workers the right of union representation.
“As a member of Wal-Mart’s management team, you are our first line of defense against unionization,” it states. “It is important you be … constantly alert for efforts by a union to organize your associates and constantly alert to any signs your associates are interested in a union.”
The manual proclaims that Wal-Mart’s “open door” policy makes “third party representation” unnecessary. “It is our position every associate can speak for him/herself without having to pay his/her hard-earned money to a union …”
Managers are instructed to instantly telephone the Wal-Mart “union hotline,” at the first sign of union activity. The booklet also warns them to be on the alert for danger signs of worker discontent.
One chapter, “Union Authorization Cards” declares, “In the event you find a union authorization card in your facility or hear associates are attending union meetings and signing authorization cards, it is imperative you contact the Union Hotline at (501) 273-8300 immediately. Wal-Mart must respond to this type of union activity immediately in an effort to stop card signing before the required 30 percent signature have been obtained.”
Several chapters are devoted to ferreting out “salts,” union organizers who are sent into a Wal-Mart store to organize from the inside.
One Wal-Mart program featured in the booklet is “TIPS” for “Threaten, Interrogate, Promise, Spy.” It states, “Know your TIPS. As long as you do not threaten, interrogate, promise or spy on your associates, Wal-Mart, through your efforts, will be able to share its views on unionization in an open, honest and legal manner.” Yet all the practices exposed by the lawsuits and by the NLRB reveal that threats, interrogation, spying and broken promises are Wal-Mart’s stock-in-trade and the way it keeps its employees powerless wage slaves.
Wal-Mart is one of the biggest contributors to the campaign coffers of George W. Bush and the Republican ultra-right, which helps explain why the Bush administration has been so slow to enforce labor rights and anti-discrimination laws against the Arkansas-based firm.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart poured $100,000 into the successful campaign to railroad a “Right-to-Work (for less)” unionbusting referendum, in Oklahoma. They hope to put similar anti-union laws on the books in Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire and New Mexico.
“Union members across the country should take note of Wal-Mart’s support of measures like ‘right-to-work’ before they spend any of their union wages at Wal-Mart stores,” said Edwin Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The author can be reached at email@example.com