Labor Roundup: A Walkout by Wal-Mart Workers

Wal-Mart and labor unions have long been at odds. The world's largest retail chain aggressively seeks to combat union organizing at its U.S. stores, and has inspired various labor-sponsored campaigns to draw attention to the company's employment, logistics, and sourcing practices. 

But not until now have workers at Wal-Mart stores actually walked off the job in large numbers. This week, with the help of a group sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers, workers in four states staged a walkout. UFCW has sought to bring attention to Wal-Mart's employment practices for years, and supports Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), an association of current Wal-Mart employees. The group is not actively seeking to organize workers at Wal-Mart stores, but helped organize what it called a strike.

A company spokesman told BNA that the number of workers that walked off the job was small, and that store operations were not affected. According to OUR Walmart, workers stopped work at locations in the Dallas, Miami, suburban Washington, D.C., Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles areas. The workers have said they're looking for more consistent hours, better pay, and "simple respect."

Although the walkouts only lasted two days, OUR Walmart in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday said it planned further actions on the day after Thanksgiving, typically the busiest shopping day of the year, if the company did not meet its demands.

Striking workers and national OUR Walmart leaders said the group has committed to engaging in a wide range of nonviolent activities on Black Friday, including rallies, flash mobs, direct action, and other efforts to inform customers about what they call the illegal actions that Wal-Mart has been taking against its workers. The group also garnered support from various other organizations, including the National Organization for Women and the National Consumers League.

But a Wal-Mart spokesman countered that "the union is using our associates to further its own political and financial agenda," and noted that when the striking employees were offered individual meetings with human resources staff, they largely declined.

It's probably safe to say that there hasn't been a walkout on this scale before at Wal-Mart, and it attracted attention in the mainstream press. Come Nov. 23, shoppers could be faced with a different kind of scene than they're used to.

In other labor news this week: 

  • Members of the Communications Workers of America ratified a contract on health benefits with AT&T Mobility covering 42,000 workers.
  • The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace filed unfair labor practice charges accusing Boeing of illegally videotaping union marches during its contract talks with the company.
  • Three employee groups at regional airline American Eagle represented by the Transport Workers Union reached tentative agreements with the carrier, which currently is in bankruptcy.