Black Friday strike at St. Paul Walmart: "If I lose my job it doesn't really bother me that much"
"This is about respecting workers," an organizer said.
Photos by Aaron Rupar
With a parking lot full of Black Friday shoppers next to them, about 250 people braved the cold and took to the University Avenue sidewalk outside St. Paul's Walmart to protest working conditions, wages, and retaliation against workers at America's largest retailer.
A handful of actual Walmart workers attended the protest, including Gabriel Teneyuque, an Associate at the Apple Valley location since August 2011.
Asked about the prospect of getting fired for participating in the protest, Teneyuque said, "It would suck."
"You know, earlier this week, I was really concerned," Teneyuque continued. "But I know it's a good cause, so if I lost my job it doesn't really brother me that much anymore. I know I'm gonna still keep working hard for this cause."
Asked why he felt compelled to protest, Teneyuque said he works full-time, yet barely makes above the federal poverty line.
Teneyuque is a member of OUR Walmart, an informal group of thousands of Walmart employees in 43 states devoted to "elevating the voices of Walmart Associates speaking out for change." OUR Walmart helped organize the Friday afternoon St. Paul protest, which was part of a "national day of action" taking part at hundreds of Walmarts in America.
One of Teneyuque's OUR Walmart colleagues is Michael Ahles, as Associate at the Sauk Centre Walmart. Ahles said he was scheduled to work during the very time he was protesting, but was confident OUR Walmart's legal counsel would have his back if his bosses retaliated. How effective his defense would be is debatable, though -- a law student at the protest said the legal case for ununionized private sector workers keeping their jobs if fired after taking part in strikes is "tenuous at best."
Asked when he planned to return to work at Walmart, Ahles indicated his devotion to principle only went so far.
"I'll be at work tomorrow," he said.
Over the sounds of bullhorns and pro-workers rights chants, Bernie Hesse, political director of the local United Food and Commercial Workers union, characterized the Black Friday strike and protest as "historic."
Hesse, a veteran of workers' rights struggles, said that nationally, he expected "several hundred" Walmart workers to participate in the Black Friday protest. "It's not going to be like a million workers walking out... [but] things happen where you start with a trickle and who knows, maybe all of the sudden you have a flood."
"This is how a lot of industrial movements started, whether at meat packing plans or auto plans," Hesse added.
Asked why Walmart was being singled out, Hesse said the UFCW "wants all retailers to do right by their workers, but Walmart is the largest retailer in the U.S."
One of out every 115 workers in the U.S. works for Walmart, and the company does $35 million in business every hour, Hess said.
"Walmart can be the leader in lifting retailer workers up instead of being what drags them down," Hesse said. "I think the thing that's really different now is [Walmart's size] and the fact that they consider their workers disposable."
Hesse said the St. Paul Walmart turns over 60 percent of its workforce every year, and he takes that situation to be more norm than exception "now that we've shifted to a service economy."
"It's incredible," he continued. "What does it say? It says, people get tossed. Also people walk because they just say, 'I can't live on this' so they leave. And that's the model of our economy? It's unsustainable."
Beyond wages and the ability of Walmart Associates to express concerns about working conditions to bosses without facing retaliation, Hesse said another UFCW concern is health care and who pays for it.
"A lot of [Walmart workers] are able to use the state-sponsored health care," Hesse said. But why should taxpayers foot the bill while extremely profitable private corporations get off relatively scot free?
"If we want people to have health care, then I think we should have a discussion about who's paying for it and who should be paying their fair share," Hesse said.
Another specific concern Hesse discussed is how Walmart schedules Associates.
"It shouldn't be this rollercoaster of working six hours one week and then 40 the next because they love you, and then next week you're back out," Hesse said. "There should be some regularity even to a retail worker's life."
As for the question of whether the law would protect formally ununionized Walmart workers from losing their jobs for striking or participating in the protest, Hesse promised his union "would vigorously defend anybody that gets discharged," but acknowledged there's little legal precedent one way or the other. Another UFCW official said Walmart has already filed a federal motion requesting permission to discipline striking workers.
"Most of these workers that struck presented management with a letter saying, 'I'm striking today. It's an unfair labor practices strike,'" Hesse said. "It's protected under the [National Labor Relations] Act, but it hasn't really been dealt with yet, so stay tuned."
Behind Hesse, Black Friday traffic moved briskly into and out of the nearly full Walmart parking lot. Some folks honked their horns to express solidarity with protestors, then got out of their cars and headed into the store, presumably to shop.
"This ain't the end of it. This is the start of something," Hesse said. "This could be like Woodstock and grow organically... who knows what's going to happen during Christmas"
For more photos from today's protest, click to page two.
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