Two years ago, William (far left), Greg and Charlene Fletcher were the first three people at their store in Duarte, Calif., to sign up when OUR Walmart, a labor organization created by the United Food and Commercial Workers, came to town. Last week, they were among the dozens of Walmart workers in Southern California to walk off their jobs in the first ever retail worker strike in the chain's 50-year history.
On Tuesday, 88 workers at 28 Walmarts in 12 different cities joined them on strike; and on Wednesday, a couple hundred Walmart associates convened for a demonstration at the chain's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Walmart organizers say their goal is to build momentum over the coming weeks for a planned massive walkout on Black Friday -- the biggest shopping day of the year. This isn't a strike in the usual sense; employees will be going back to work in the interim, because most of them need the money, and it's likely that this will be a one-day event for the majority of participants. And since Walmart workers aren't unionized, there is no contract to negotiate.
The leaders say their strike aims to end retaliation against Walmart employees who complain about working conditions or attempt to organize. Asked what Walmart would have to offer up before the Black Friday deadline, Daniel Schlademan, the director of the Making Change at Walmart campaign that's organizing the strike, said it could include reinstating the people who were "illegally fired," giving back hours to employees who had them taken away, and clarifying to management "people's right to free speech."
In response, Walmart has blamed the unions for whipping up discontent. "These strikes are an attempt by the unions to further their own political and financial agendas," Walmart spokesmen David Tovar told The Huffington Post.
While recent strikes at two Walmart warehouses in South California and Elwood, Ill., ended successfully, with Walmart agreeing to end retaliation, there is no guarantee of that happening with a much larger strike, in the name of the 1.4 million retail workers directly employed by Walmart.
Most Walmart employees can't afford to strike for any extended period of time either, and Greg, Charlene and William will be back at work in the lead up to Black Friday. "Walmart doesn't pay us enough to give us any kind of savings," William explains. "I'm sure it's by design."
In times of such high unemployment, the employer holds the cards; in the past year, applying for a job at some Walmart stores has been as competitive as a place at Harvard. Given the risks, why are these Walmart workers willing to join this strike? What exactly do they hope to gain? And how many will be willing to join them?
On Wednesday, when AOL Jobs caught up with them, they were at the demonstration at Walmart's Bentonville headquarters.
The Back Story
Greg, Sharlene, and Greg's brother William joined the first day of striking at the Pico Rivera store in California last week. All three of them have worked at Walmart for years, earning from $9.40 an hour (Charlene, in sales) to $10.70 an hour (Greg, in electronics). Greg and Charlene share a one-bedroom apartment with their two children.
On good weeks, they work 32 hours, and while they're entitled to enroll in the company's health insurance, they pass because it would eat up a third of their pay checks -- $440 a month per person. (Only Greg and Charlene's youngest child, a baby, is insured through a California state program.)
Why They Joined The Cause
"I joined because I understood what it meant to be intimidated by our management, and unfairly written up for something so bogus," says Charlene, who claims she was verbally abused by a manager, and chastised by four managers at once to purposefully intimidate her.
Greg and William say they both joined after they were retaliated against. They were working on the loading dock, and they say the load just kept increasing. Greg and William both complained, but the management didn't let up.
William's knee -- which had been operated on when he was 13 -- suffered severe aggravation, and Greg tore some of the connecting issue in his spine. In response, they claim management tried to cut their hours and dock their pay -- in Greg's case down to 10 hours a week, $8 an hour. William and Greg challenged that and won.
When OUR Walmart organizers showed up, they were ready to join. "This is exactly what we've been looking for," William thought. "This is exactly what we need." Says Charlene: "It's going to be a long, long fight. But it's one we're willing to go through."
Charlene, Greg, and William hope the strike simply makes the public more aware of how Walmart treats its employees. "They always talk about priding themselves on their relationships with customers, but who do those customers have a relationship with?" says William. "They take pride in certain qualities, but those are the qualities in their associates, the same associates they're turning around and backstabbing."
These employees care deeply about retaliation, which prevents employees from going to management, or lawyers, or unions, or even each other about the other issues they face. "The freedom to speak out without retaliation," is Charlene's most central goal. "That is our right."
But Greg, Charlene, and William hope the strike can bring attention to those underlying issues too, and force Walmart to respond to them. "I would like them to see them invest in their workers," says Greg. "Giving hours, giving training, properly staffing the stores."
He would also love to see pay hikes across the board. "There's no reason why, at a company as big and as profitable as Walmart, so many people are relying on state aid for support."
William says affordable health care is high on his list.
How Their Managers Reacted To The Strike
"They seemed like they don't know what to do," William says. The first morning of the strike, William claims he was out there with several others, in their "OUR Walmart" shirts, waiting for their ride, and the managers called the police on them. "We know they're afraid of us," he says.
Why Not Just Quit?
Charlene says she tried looking for other jobs. "And of course, no luck. They're on a hiring freeze," she says. "What I've come to realize is that Walmart is dominating the workforce. Other people can't afford to keep up, so they're not really hiring."
"There really aren't any other jobs available," explains William. "But even more than that, Walmart effects the entire market. Any job I leave Walmart for is going to be the same job." William dreams of becoming a social worker, but says he's struggled to keep the classes up given the demands Walmart places on his schedule. In the last two to three years of going to school on-and-off, he's only completed two semesters.
Why They Think Their Fight Will Be Successful
"People keep coming up to me and telling me they're amazed by it," Greg says. "I think it's going to be enormous."
"There are enough people who are tired of it," he adds. "No amount of fear in the world can stop a person who's had enough."
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