By Wilson Dizard
September 3, 2013
Walmart employees held demonstrations Thursday in cities across the United States, demanding better pay and protesting the firing of those who previously demonstrated against the company -- the country's largest private employer, with 1.3 million American workers.
The rallies come just one week after fast-food workers staged walk-outs at fast-food restaurants in 60 U.S. cities to call for hourly pay of $15 instead of minimum wage. According to organizers, many Walmart workers earn the minimum wage, which varies from state to state but typically hovers near $7 to $8 per hour.
In New York City, where demonstrations kicked off at 10 a.m., a small group of current and former Walmart workers protested along with advocacy and union groups.
They were flanked by a band featuring a trumpet, trombone and saxophone outside the office of Walmart board member Christopher Williams, CEO of Williams Capital Management.
Police said they arrested three protesters who sat on the ground and locked arms in front of the building where Williams' office is located, charging them with trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Demonstrators said they had planned to hand Williams a petition that organizers said had 200,000 signatures of people demanding Walmart commit to providing full-time work with a minimum salary of $25,000, and reinstate workers who were allegedly fired for previously striking.
Among those arrested Thursday was Barbara Gertz, an overnight stocker at the Walmart store in Aurora, Colo.
She told Al Jazeera that many workers were illegally penalized for striking in June outside Walmart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
"Anybody who says they're not scared to lose their job probably is not being honest. I feel that what is going on in my workplace is more important than me getting fired. Making a change at Walmart is more important than me losing my job, because whether I work at Walmart or somewhere else, Walmart is the largest retailer in the world, and so many other businesses are starting to follow their business model," Gertz, who lives in Commerce, Colo., told Al Jazeera.
"If I get another job they're still going to affect me."
She said she and others want to see Walmart alter its ways.
"We want them to change. We want them to start treating their associates fairly and give them the ability to support their families. When you get a full-time job, you get that to be able to have a house or home and support your family," she said. "You can't do that at Walmart."
Other cities where Walmart employees are currently demonstrating Thursday include Baton Rouge, La., Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Fla., Sacramento, Calif., San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
Thursday's action is expected to be the largest rally since Black Friday in 2012, which spanned at least nine cities, organizers said.
Walmart told Al Jazeera that Thursday's protests represent "a union driven publicity stunt" and "made-for-TV demonstrations."
"You will continue to see today that very few, if any associates are actually taking part in these demonstrations," the company said. "The opinions being expressed aren't representative of the vast majority of the people who work for us."
But Maritza Silva-Farrell with the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), an advocacy group that has put pressure on Walmart, said that charge is not true.
"Instead of responding to the workers' needs, they are trying to spin the news and say this all like a union drive, that special interests are trying to do, which is not the case," Silva-Farrell said. "The customers are asking for those changes. People are asking for those changes, and Walmart is not able to open up their ears and try to make a change."
The Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, organizations that back the protests, said the workers are seeking a minimum wage of $25,000 per year.
It wasn't clear exactly how many Walmart workers participated in the protests, but a UFCW spokesman said they happened in 15 cities.
The organizations said the protests follow Walmart's failure to meet a Sept. 1 deadline for reinstating employees fired for leading protests against the company.
Organizers say that the firings violate U.S. labor law, which prevents reprisals from employers against workers who attempt to form a union.
Rozier, a member of OUR Walmart, said she was fired three weeks ago for participating in the June strike.
"Ever since then, they were retaliating against me, and I’m here for the other associates that are afraid to stand up and voice their opinion," Rozier said.
She said she has had to have six surgeries as a result of being "overworked and underpaid." She also said the money taken out of her paycheck for insurance and high co-payments for doctors put her in a situation where she had to get government assistance.
Her message to Walmart CEO Mike Duke: "I would tell him to give us affordable wages where we can go home and we can bring food to our table for our families."
Walmart, which is the largest employer in 25 states, has earned more than $30 billion in the second quarter of this year. The company employs 2.2 million people worldwide across nearly 11,000 stores in 27 countries.
Along with their other complaints, demonstration organizers also charge that the company benefits from federal social-welfare programs by paying wages too low for workers to live on or by not providing health insurance, forcing employees to sign up for food stamps or Medicaid.
"We're hoping that we'll get more of a united front among Walmart workers so we can gain some respect, a better living wage so that we're not draining society of funds from Medicaid and food stamps," said Susan Gulick, a former Walmart worker in Simpsonville, S.C. Gulick, who participated in the New York City protest Thursday and was subsequently arrested, told Al Jazeera she was fired from Walmart for "standing up and being an activist."
Still, Gulick said she hopes to get her job back, even though she's not sure it's a likely scenario.
"I don't know whether they would take me or not, because they were trying to make me quit. They tried to break my soul," she said.
Walmart denies the labor organizers' charge that workers make minimum wage, saying that the average wage at the company is about $12 per hour, and that most employees work full-time and receive health insurance. Walmart also said that it had more than 85,000 workers who made $18 an hour or more.
Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for the company, said the workers allegedly fired for protesting the company were let go for attendance reasons.
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