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Wal-Mart Accused of Threatening Workers with Retaliation Ahead of Black Friday Walkouts, Protests

StoryNovember 21, 2012
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Wal-Mart workers across the country are planning to stage unprecedented walkouts and protests on Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Wal-Mart has sought to counter the effort by filing an unfair labor practice charge against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and, according to critics, threatening workers with retaliation. We’re joined by William Fletcher, a Wal-Mart worker and member of the employee advocacy group OUR Walmart; and Josh Eidelson, a contributing writer for The Nation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, is seeking to block a series of protests and actions critical of its labor conditions at stores nationwide. Late last week, Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice charge against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, or UFCW, claiming it’s unlawfully trying to disrupt its business. The move comes just days before a group of Wal-Mart workers are preparing to strike on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States. The strike will be accompanied by rallies and flash mobs outside Wal-Mart stores nationwide. One of the groups organizing the protests is OUR Walmart, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart. In an advocacy video, Wal-Mart workers explain why they’re planning to walk out.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: Because together, we are stronger than we are alone.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: Because I like to make a difference for those who are too scared to come forward.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 3: Because Wal-Mart can afford to pay us enough to live better.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: Stand up, live better.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about this, we’re joined by two guests. William Fletcher is a Wal-Mart worker. Josh Eidelson is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to William in Los Angeles first. What are your plans for Friday?

WILLIAM FLETCHER: So, for Friday, we’re planning to have walkouts at many of our stores, the one that I work at, Duarte, being one of them. We’re hoping to have as much of the community join us, so that we can try to make a strong impression so that Wal-Mart will listen to us and end retaliation that happens in our stores nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? What are they doing? Why are you protesting?

WILLIAM FLETCHER: So, whenever an associate tries to speak out, or a worker, I should say, tries to speak out to the media or to anyone, really, about what happens in our stores and the way we’re treated, they get retaliated against. Many of them are fired. They’re threatened. They’ll be pulled into an office with three, four managers, and talked to for about an hour, sometimes longer. We are doing it because we don’t want associates to feel that they should be afraid to speak out. It is our right as American workers, and it’s our right as American citizens.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we invited Wal-Mart to join us on today’s show. They declined our invitation, but Wal-Mart’s national media relations director, Kory Lundberg, issued this statement. They wrote, quote, “These so-called protests involve a handful of associates at a handful of stores. In fact most of the protesters don’t even work for Walmart. They are union organizers and union members who work somewhere else. We are laser focused on serving customers on Black Friday and we are preparing to have our best Black Friday ever.” William Fletcher, can you—can you respond to that statement from Wal-Mart?

WILLIAM FLETCHER: Well, simply, it’s not true. Every member of OUR Walmart is a former Wal-Mart employee. That’s just fact. As to there’s not going to be that many stores participating, we’re looking at about a thousand stores nationwide. I don’t know if anyone would call that small. I would say that’s quite large. And as to it being union, we’re not. We are—again, we are just the Wal-Mart employees who have gotten together to say we’re tired of the retaliation, we’re tired of the way we’re being treated.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Josh Eidelson, can you talk about—first of all, respond to what the Wal-Mart spokesperson said, and also talk about the wider significance of these protests planned for Black Friday.

JOSH EIDELSON: Thanks, Nermeen.

So Wal-Mart has a public message and a private message. The public message is dismissing these workers as a fringe, dismissing the protests and the strikes as stunts. The private message takes places in captive audience meetings that the company holds on work time. Wal-Mart, not a company that likes to waste money, is paying workers to sit in a room and be lectured to about why they shouldn’t participate in these strikes. I talked, for example, to a worker in Oklahoma. I reported for The Nation on a meeting he sat in where a manager read off questions and answers. One question was: If we participate in this action, could we be fired? The answer was: No comment. And then the manager left.

In terms of the larger significance, Wal-Mart is a pioneer both in this low-wage business model, which even Wal-Mart’s union competitors have had to emulate or chosen to emulate. Wal-Mart is also a pioneer in union busting. And the way that Wal-Mart has perfected of fighting off unionization has been copied by other companies. So if you can beat Wal-Mart, if you can make Wal-Mart say yes when it wants to say no, all kinds of things are possible for the labor movement. If you can’t, then there is a cramped future to the labor movement as more companies follow Wal-Mart’s lead.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the group OUR Walmart announced they had filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board saying Wal-Mart was making illegal threats to relations board, saying Wal-Mart—to prevent workers from joining the Black Friday protests. In particular, they cited this statement by Wal-Mart spokesperson David Tovar from Monday’s edition of CBS Evening News.

DAVID TOVAR: This is just another union publicity stunt, and the numbers that they’re talking about are grossly exaggerated. If associates are scheduled to work on Black Friday, we expect them to show up and to do their job. And if they don’t, depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Eidelson, can you respond to what this is all about and the Wal-Mart bringing charges against the protesters to the NLRB, as well, even though they’re not a union now?

JOSH EIDELSON: Yeah. So, the—my analysis for The Nation of this charge: Wal-Mart would have to prove two things. The first, they might be able to prove that UFCW, even though it’s not the group named in the protest, has some legal responsibility. What would seem very hard for them to prove, based on everything that’s public, is that these are strikes trying to win union recognition rather than strikes fighting back against retaliation. I’ve asked Wal-Mart for evidence of that; they haven’t provided any of it. And so, what seems more likely is this charge is designed to make workers think that these strikes aren’t legally protected, and it’s part of a campaign to make workers believe that they could be fired if they participate on Friday.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: William Fletcher, as you’ve been helping to organize for Black Friday, have people, Wal-Mart workers, spoken to you about these kinds of threats, in the event that they do participate?

WILLIAM FLETCHER: Yes, actually, many of them have. A lot of associates are afraid to speak out, and are even afraid for me to speak out. But simply, the answer to that is to just simply not be afraid. This company are—this company is an expert at propaganda. It’s what they do. It’s what they’re great at. And that’s what they’ve been doing to us. They’ve been spreading this fear campaign that makes associates feel that if they speak out, something is going to happen. But again, it is our right as American workers. I can’t stress the importance of everyone that if you see something wrong, if you feel something is wrong, speak up. They can’t do anything to you legally.

AMY GOODMAN: William Fletcher, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to see whether these protests will—on Black Friday will give Wal-Mart a black eye. William Fletcher has worked in the electronics department of Wal-Mart in Duarte, California, for four years, been a member of OUR Walmart for two years. And thanks so much to Josh Eidelson of The Nation.

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