Last week, I attended a panel discussion concerning recent efforts by the alt labor movement to push back against poverty level wages and worker oppression. Titled: Alt Labor Rising: Organizing Wal-Mart and the Fast Food Industry. The panel was moderated by Salon Staff Writer, Josh Eidelson and sponsored by public policy organization Demos.
The discussion commemorated the one-year anniversary of the first Wal-Mart employee walkout in which workers demanded to be paid a living wage. Since that time, there have been a number of walkouts in Wal-Mart stores across the country, fast food workers have held walkouts in sixty cities, and the alt labor movement continues to grow.
Tomorrow’s Black Friday is expected to include the largest Wal-Mart employee walkout ever and will be accompanied by protests at Wal-Mart stores across the country. Information about protests can be found here.
The Wal-Mart Movement
Patricia Locks was a panelist at the Demos event and a longtime employee of Wal-Mart. She participated in the front lines of the Wal-Mart walkouts. Patricia is part of the organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart). They are fighting to be paid a living wage and for Wal-Mart to stop retaliating against workers who speak up. Wal-Mart has allegedly fired or disciplined one hundred OUR Wal-Mart leaders and Patricia reported observing Wal-Mart’s retaliation first hand.
On November 15, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board found merit in allegations that Wal-Mart: 1) unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes on Black Friday last year, 2) “unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests,” and 3) “unlawfully threatened, surveilled, disciplined, and/or terminated employees in anticipation of or in response to employees’ other protected concerted activities.” The Office of the General Counsel has authorized the filing of a complaint against Wal-Mart for these alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
While fear of unlawful retaliation by Wal-Mart may be limiting participation in its employees efforts to organize, other workers have continued to speak out.
The Fast Food Movement
Naquasha LeGrand is a member of Fast Food Forward, a movement led by fast food workers to improve wages and working conditions in the industry. She participated in the first wave of fast food walkouts earlier this year, when she walked off her job at KFC. Naquasha discussed her employer’s wage theft practices, such as automatically deducting time from her pay records for breaks that she never took.
In the short time she has been participating in the walkouts, she has observed its exponential growth. While the first action was small with about two hundred workers walking out on their jobs, three times as many workers participated in the second walkout. The third walkout expanded to twelve cities across the country and the fourth to sixty cities.
The Black Friday Creep
Patricia’s noted that she would be spending her Thanksgiving holiday working at Wal-Mart. She is not alone. The company has decided to follow a recent trend among retailers by starting its so-called “Black Friday” specials a day early and putting 1.1 million of its employees to work on Thanksgiving to handle the customer volume.
Wal-Mart is among a number of retailers that that have failed to take a stand against the “Black Friday creep” in to what will hopefully remain a traditional family holiday. The Black Friday creep has bled into the fast food industry as well, where restaurants are opening on Thanksgiving in order to profit from serving hungry holiday shoppers.
CNN reported today on the story of Tony Rohr, a manager at a Pizza Hut restaurant who was allegedly fired for taking a stand against the Black Friday creep. When he refused to open his store on Thanksgiving, he was instructed to write a letter of resignation. Instead, Tony refused to quit, but was fired anyway after telling his employer the following:
I accept that the refusal to comply with this greedy, immoral request means the end of my tenure with this company . . . I hope you realize that it is the people at the bottom of the totem pole that make your life possible.
After Tony’s story made national headlines, he was quickly offered his job back. While exposing the employer’s conduct may have worked to get Tony his job back, shaming corporations for their oppressive conduct is not likely to stem the tide of the Thanksgiving creep on a larger scale.
I applaud Patricia, Naquasha, and Tony, for taking a stand to support worker’s rights. I respect you guys, even if your employers don’t. Happy Thanksgiving.