Article 43


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Scared To Strike


Why Most Walmart and Fast Food Workers Didn’t Strike

By Nona Willis Aronowitz
The Nation
December 12, 2012

For service and retail workers across the country, its been an exciting few weeks. Following October DEMONSTRATIONS AGAINST WALMART, the chain’s workers and other community members participated in historic strikes in 100 cities on Black Friday, protesting low wages and shrinking hours. On the last Thursday in November, 200 employees from two dozen New York fast food restaurants staged a flash strike demanding their pay be raised to $15 an hour. People who have a lot to lose put their livelihoods on the line: Pamela Flood, 22, was the only one to strike at her Brooklyn Burger King, even though she has three kids and lives in a shelter. Martha Sellers, 55, who walked off the job at a Walmart in Paramount, Calif., struggles to pay her rent each month and hasn’t changed her car’s oil in two years.

Unions and community groups are heralding these actions as the dawn of a new era for organized labor. Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, told me that organizing the service sector is the natural next step for the union, which backed the strikes along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and others: Here are workers, joining together saying they can’t survive on $7.25. It’s the absolute right time to throw support to that kind of courage.

These STORIES are inspiring, but they’re also needles in a giant haystack. One in 10 employed Americans now work in food service; the 200 who WALKED OFF THE JOB IN NEW YORK CITY are a tiny fraction. When you remember that Walmarts 4,000 United States locations employ 1.4 million people, a few thousand people striking sounds almost like a fluke. Americans are increasingly realizing that the wage gap is weakening the economy for us all, but a push to unionize the service sector may be a longer, harder fight than Henry and other organizers suggest.

Labor has been weakened across all industries, but food service and retail has always been notoriously difficult to organize, becoming only more so in recent years as low-wage jobs have proliferated. More than half of the jobs created during the recovery pay under 14 dollars an hour. The people in these jobs make up the most vulnerable section of our work force. They often don;t have college degrees, or even high school diplomas. Some of them dont speak fluent English. And many of them were unemployed for months before they got hired - long enough for $7.25 an hour to seem generous. In many communities, places like Walmart or McDonalds are the only ones hiring at all. Some workers are ready to push for better working conditions - but many are scared and uninformed, just trying to keep their heads down.

I recently visited the Walmart in Secaucus, NJone of the stores where workers staged a Black Friday demonstration with a group called OUR Walmart - and out of the 15 employees I spoke with, not one had ever been part of a union. Several weren’t sure what they were. Many of them waved me off with a worried “no, no no,” even though their managers were nowhere to be found. One worker named Jon told me “all [unions] do is take dues from you.” None of them had participated in the strike a few days before.

“I got bills,” said Ida Allen, who stocks the produce department. “And some people go out there and fight for their jobs and they lose their jobs. I mean, look at Hostess. I ain’t got time for that. My bills keep coming.”

Many employees assume they;re going to be dismissed or have their hours cut if they try to organize. (They’re right to be anxiousafter striking at Burger King, Pamela Flood’s hours were mysteriously cut in half.) When I asked Monica, an 18-year-old Walmart worker, what she was afraid of, she said mainly [getting] fired because technically you’re going against the store. Of course, retaliation for attempting to unionize is illegal. But many employees don’t know that, and fighting retaliation often sends employees into a maze of unpleasant legal action. Either way, Monica said, shed only been working there two weeks - it was too much of a risk to protest.

Monica isn’t an anomaly; the retail and food service industries are famous for ushering in an endless assembly line of new employees. Not only that, “their hours are fluctuating every week,” says Carrie Gleason, executive director of the Retail Action Project. ”The retail workforce has grown so much that all of these part-time workers don’t know each other.” They’re competing with each other for hours, and in retail’s case, for sales. They’re maybe juggling two or three jobs, not emotionally investing in any of them. These employer practices are intentional - they fuel turnover, encourage workers to quit, and [show] them that basically they’re DISPOSABLE, says Gleason.

Part-time labor and last-minute scheduling pads corporate profit margins, but it also helps keep the peace. If workers don’t know each other, they won’t be friends, and if they’re not friends, they’ll mind their own business. Colby Harris, a 23-year-old Walmart worker in Lancaster, Tex., joined the Black Friday strike but saw many of his coworkers demur in fear of retaliation. These workers, he says, “don’t think about that next person who has to come and deal with the same situation.. you gotta care more about somebody else than yourself.” If you barely know your fellow cashier, that"s a tall order.

Fast food and retail workers haven’t historically been steeped in union culture the way autoworkers or teachers or health care professionals might be - so the employees learning curve is steep. But there is another player in the service sector that wears down the worker: the customer. These are emotionally taxing jobs, ones that require constant, face-to-face interaction. On the factory assembly line, “you can kind of zone out or daydream,: says Stephanie Luce, associate professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY. But in the service industry, “you really can’. You have to be there 100 percent. With a smile on your face.” For Danisa, a 37-year-old Burger King worker and cancer patient with two teenage daughters who declined to strike on November 29, the threat of retaliation wasn’t as potent as the stress of adding yet another emotionally demanding activity to her life. Her hourly pay - MINIMUM WAGE, $7.25 - is not a lot of money to deal with a lot of B.S. “I have to have a multiple attitude to deal with [customers] split personalities.” “It’s not that she’s scared,” she says. “It’s just that I don’t have the time right now.” The last thing she wants to think about after a grueling shift on her feet is union organizing.

A decade ago, many of the workers who held crappy, low-paid jobs were teenagers who were genuinely able to move on to better-paying, more secure work. Nowadays, the average age of a fast food employee is 29 and a half. In retail, more than 70 percent of workers are over 25 years old. Low-wage service jobs are expected to grow by 7 to 10 million in the next decade. They’re THE FUTURE OF OUR ECONOMY, and we need to accept that these jobs are here to stay. That means lending support to the unions organizing them, but also realizing how this sector differs from traditional labor strongholds and making a serious, mass effort across the country to educate workers about what a union could mean for them. (Most of the Walmart workers I talked to weren’t even aware there was a strike. One employee didn’t understand why activists had traveled across the country just “because they felt bad for us.")

But unions can’t shoulder the burden alone. President Obama has paid lip service to the plight of cooks and waiters and cleaning staff working overtime in hotels across the country, but hasn’t outlined specific policies to improve jobs in the fastest-growing sector of the economy. The government should expand tax incentives for corporations and mom-and-pop shops not just to create jobs but also to increase pay. A push to INCREASE THE MINIMUM WAGE so that it reflects the cost of living would help, too. And to enforce existing labor laws, the Department of Labor needs adequate resources.

Most of all, we have to admit that McJobs are EVERYBODY’S PROBLEM. When the 60 million Americans working low-wage service jobs can’t piece together their rent, they become reliant on food stamps and public assistance. When people have no purchasing power or savings, the recovery slows. So when we pore over the monthly jobs reports, we should remember that quality counts just as much as quantity.

These strikes are the first step toward that consciousness-raising. Walmart worker Colby Harris said it best: “A lot of people don’t plan on being there forever. But then there are some people who aren’t as educated and aren’t as skilled of a worker and they might have to work there for the rest of their lives. What about those people?”



How Walmart Trains Managers

By Adrian
Labor Notes
August 31, 2011

The brave Walmart workers who belong to OUR Walmart say fear is the main thing stopping their fellow retail workers from organizing. As an assistant store manager at Walmart, I saw how managers were trained to put that fear into hourly workers heads.

When I was hired four years ago, new assistant managers had to complete eight weeks of training. We got a $500 prepaid credit card for meals and were thrown into a hotel, with weekends off to go home.

I thought we would get a crash course in Walmart history and then get into learning the computer systems, the policies, how to schedule people. I was far off track. I was now in an eight-week indoctrination into how Walmart is the unsurpassed company to work for, and how to spot any employee who was having doubts. I was supposed to be happy at all times.

The training was done at “Stores of Learning.” The assistant managers were new hires to Walmart, like me, or about one-third had been promoted from within.

Training activities included the Walmart cheer. Every morning, as store associates do, we would participate in the cheer. A few people stood up to read the daily numbers, then break out into a chant - Give me a W-A-L-M-A-R-T,” with the rest of the people in the room shouting back the same letter. Back then, Wal-Mart still had a hyphen, so between the L and the M they would yell, Give me a squiggly!” and everyone would do a butt wiggle.

Whenever it was my turn to lead, lets just say I was less than thrilled, an early warning system for upper management on who was not Walmart material.

You, Too, Can Rise

Most days we watched videos of the CEO telling us what a good choice we’d made to come to Walmart. Other videos showed folks who are now top management in Bentonville, Arkansas, but started out as a cashier when they were young.

We were all given Sam Waltons book to read: Sam Walton: Made in America. We were allotted 15 to 30 minutes a day for silent reading, or instead you could help out in the store. I was one of the few that chose to fetch carts in the parking lot or help throw freight around in the back. Since the Store of Learning was also going to be the store I would work at, I wanted to take the opportunity to get to know the workers and other managers. I wanted to see if anybody could tell me what an assistant manager’s role was, considering there wasnt much of that going on in the classroom.

We had a week-long schedule of anti-union sessions. They didn’t call them that, but essentially it was how to spot uprising employees.

We had an entire day devoted to word phrasing, looking at how employees use words and what key words to look for. A computer test consisted of a what’s wrong with this picture? game. You were shown the area near a time clock, and different handmade and computer-made signs. One sign said “Baby shower committee” meeting Jan. 26, 8 pm. Another said “Potluck Wednesday” all day in break room. Which one of those signs should raise alarms with management?

“Baby shower committee. Because of the word “committee,” a manager would have to find the person who made the sign, find out why they used that word, then determine if the action got a warning or a write-up. If it was the store manager who found the sign, a write-up was almost guaranteed. They called it unlawful Walmart language, unbecoming a Walmart employee - words like “committee,” “organize,” “meeting.” Even “volunteer” was an iffy word, and they would raise an eyebrow at group.

The anti-union training was the biggest part of our reading and training material. We watched videos about why unions are bad and how proud Walmart was for not allowing unions into its system. I let all that go in one ear and out the other. I felt that if I gave those videos even five minutes worth of attention, I was betraying my union parents.

We did get a day and a half of loss-prevention training; how to spot shoplifters, what happens if you catch an employee stealing, and routine loss-prevention. They brought in a loss-prevention district manager whose 30-minute talk was to put the fear of Sam Walton in us. He told the class that if he found out we let anything fall through the cracks, he would show up at the store with a pink slip in hand.

Nothing from that eight weeks of brainwashing was geared to help you do your job as an assistant manager. Essentially it was more of a police academy, training the managers to be police officers for Walmart. We were being trained to put fear into the hourly workers’ heads. Step out of line, and you lose your job.

After graduating (they held a makeshift ceremony), I had no clue what exactly my job was. I had to learn from the other assistant managers in my store how to operate the scanner, how to schedule my departments, and the other operational items that weren’t covered in the training. The only thing I learned was how to fake being happy around customers and my subordinates.


The trainers told us that assistant managers are only allowed to hang out or go to break or lunch with other assistant managers, not with hourly associates, not with co-managers, not the store manager. Once I was on the job, half the time I went to a diner with another assistant manager. If I stayed in for lunch, I would turn my walkie-talkie off, sit in the break room with the associates, and talk with them. That was frowned upon.

One day of training was about attire. There were separate rules for dress policy according to job title. Assistant managers and higher have to wear a collared blue shirt. No collar, no job.

Hourly people get a little more free play and are not required to wear a collar shirt. Management has to wear khakis; hourly can wear jeans. I heard one trainer say, “Well, the hourly folks probably cant afford khakis, even with their discount.”

How anti-union is Walmart? I wore a UAW jacket that my mom had bought for me. When I wore it into the store, the store manager broke into my locker and took it. He said it would encourage others, and I was written up for conduct unbecoming a Walmart employee. I called Human Resources, but I got nowhere. Walmart says they have an open-door policy, but like OUR Walmart members have testified, its closed to most of us.

Prior to my employment with the largest retailer in the world, I worked for a union-friendly Midwest competitor, in the same management position. The differences were amazing. It was nothing for me as a manager to go out for a few beers with my people. At the competitor, the hourly workers are union. As a manager, it’s a breeze to writeout your weekly schedules when you follow the contract!


Posted by Elvis on 12/12/12 •
Section Dying America
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