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Job Action Against Walmart Brings Scrutiny to its Inadequate Wages

Walmart is the target of a job action scheduled today in 15 cities across the country, as workers protest inadequate wages and benefits at the giant retailer, which has come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and labor experts because of its employment practices.

The job action is scheduled to include a march in Los Angeles and a rally outside San Francisco’s Four Seasons hotel, where Yahoo CEO and Walmart board member Marissa Mayer has a penthouse apartment. A petition will be delivered to the headquarters of Williams Capital Group in New York City, where the chairman, Christopher Williams, is a Walmart board member.

There are also actions planned in Chicago, Boston, Sacramento, Miami, Dallas and Washington D.C., where a bill was recently passed by the city council that requires large retailers to pay workers $12.50 an hour.

The Walmart pressure comes a week after fast-food workers staged protests in 60 cities aimed at calling attention to their inadequate pay and demanding an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has not altered in four years, from $7.25 to $15 an hour.

While the organization OurWalmart, a union-backed members group, says Walmart workers earn an average of $8.81 an hour, the company says its “average full-time hourly associate” makes $12.83 per hour.

Although today’s protests represent a tiny proportion of Walmart’s 1.3 million workforce, it is still the largest action against the company since last November when 400 workers walked off their shifts.

In addition, OurWalmart says it has filed more than 100 unfair labor practice charges against Walmart with the National Labor Relations Board, including 20 illegal terminations and 80 disciplinary actions. Walmart denies any wrongdoing.

This has been a difficult year for the retailer. In January, allegations of bribery in Mexico surfaced, and it faced questions on factory safety among its global suppliers after 1,000 garment workers were killed when a building collapsed in Bangladesh in April.

In addition, two Dutch pension funds, PGGM and Mn Services, declared in June that they would divest from Walmart, claiming that the company does not treat its employees in accordance with international standards of freedom of association, and had failed to respond to their concerns.

“Last year Walmart made $16 billion in profits. And the Waltons, who own the majority of the company, are the richest family in the world,” National Employment Law Project Executive Director Christine Owens said in a statement emailed to Atlanta Black Star. “Yet Walmart’s workers earn poverty wages that average $8.81 an hour (2011), according to IBIS WORLD, and in numerous states, Walmart tops the list of companies with employees on public assistance. Workers are hit hard by Walmart’s low wages, unpredictable schedules, and part-time hours. A 2011 study found that Walmart employees earn approximately 12 percent less than retail workers overall, and more than 14 percent less than workers in other large retail establishments.”

“So it should come as no surprise that Walmart workers are protesting in 15 cities Thursday, risking arrest,” she added. “The workers aren’t even asking for much: They want more hours. They need decent wages—a minimum of $25,000 a year for full-time work. And they need to be able to talk about these things without risking their jobs. Since June, Walmart has disciplined nearly 80 workers, including firing 20 worker-leaders who are standing up for their rights. In the face of these challenges and a fierce backlash, the workers are today reclaiming the right to speak out against the abuses they have experienced. The workers’ courage and their perseverance represent some of the brightest hope for challenging the downward tide in job quality we’ve witnessed over the past decades.”

Raymond Bravo, 36, from San Pablo, Calif., who earned $10.25 an hour, working 30 hours a week as a janitor for a Walmart’s Richmond Hilltop Mall store, told the Guardian he was fired from his job after participating in the strikes and demonstrations in June.

Bravo, who is single, said he decided to join the protests after seeing his coworkers run out of money at the end of each month. “Three days before payday I would see people who normally eat not eating,” said Bravo. “They would be borrowing money from each other.”

“I was fired for going on strike, for speaking out,” said Bravo, who worked at the Richmond store for two years. “They told me it was for missing days. But in America, you can go on strike and you are protected. I hope the government forces Walmart to give me my job back because it will give others the courage to join up.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the terminations “completely unjust and illegal.”

But Walmart spokesman Dan Fogelman denied any wrongdoing by the company and said he did not believe the work stoppages were “protected activities” under labor laws.

“Walmart strives to follow the law in everything that we do. We don’t believe that these hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are organized by unions are protected activities,” he said.

Professor John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University, told the Guardian that Walmart was “a poster child for everything that is wrong with U.S. labor law and employment relations.”

“The workers terminated by Walmart may eventually get justice, but the NLRB’s processes are notoriously slow – it sometimes seems to move at glacial speed – and its remedies for unfair management practices are extremely weak,” he said. “Walmart has consistently used legal and illegal practices to silence employees who dare to speak out.”

In an interview with USA Today, newly installed Labor Secretary Tom Perez expressed sympathy for the striking low-wage workers.

“It’s a false choice to say we either have job safety or job growth,” Perez said. “It’s a false choice to suggest that the only way for a business to survive is to make sure workers have low wages and little or no benefits. There are ample models across this country where we’ve demonstrated the contrary.”

Perez added: “There are just way too many people suffering out there. The rungs between the ladder of opportunity for so many people are feeling further and further apart, and it’s our job to bring those closer and closer together, so people can move up that ladder, because that’s what America is all about.”

A congressional report published in May found that in the state of Wisconsin, Walmart had more workers enrolled in the state’s public health care program in the last quarter of last year than any other employer. Called “The Low-Wage Drag on Our Economy,” the report was produced by Democrats with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and it showed how Walmart forces its workers to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. An earlier report by the same committee in 2004 estimated that a 200-employee Walmart store could account for $400,000 in public assistance for workers.

Fast-food workers interviewed by the Guardian said they were routinely given benefits such as food stamps to subsidize their low wages.

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