November 22, 2012
The Chicago Tribune
Wal-Mart, union members poised for holiday showdown
By: Corilyn Shropshire
Scores of Americans are expected to pile into their cars Thursday evening and hit the shops in search of the perfect deal. Charmaine Givens-Thomas of the South Side won't be among them — either as a shopper or as a Wal-Mart worker.
Givens-Thomas said she's not planning to show up Thursday for her 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift in the electronics department at Wal-Mart's Evergreen Park location, where she's worked for the past seven years. She's also planning to skip work Friday so that she can join other employees as they demonstrate outside selected.
Through work boycotts as well as protests on the days leading up to and on Black Friday, Wal-Mart Stores employees are hoping to draw attention to pay and work issues at the retailer.
"There are not a lot of days that Wal-Mart is closed," said Givens-Thomas, 60. "Thanksgiving is a family day. It's like we're cattle and they are not taking into consideration that we're human beings with families."
Earning $11 an hour, Givens-Thomas said it's increasingly difficult to make ends meet, especially since she is the sole provider for her household, which includes her husband, daughter and granddaughter. Her hours are being squeezed, too, with her work week dropping to 32 hours from 40, she said.
But labor experts say the work boycotts and protests risk showing the company's strength — not vulnerability.
To work, the approach will require protest leaders to turn out significant numbers of participants and persuade deal-chasing shoppers to go elsewhere. Protest organizers have declined to say how many Wal-Mart associates they expect to be involved in the latest round of actions.
"Shoppers in the parking lot will say, 'Oh, that's terrible. OK, where do I get my discounted electronics?'" said Zev J. Eigen, an associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in labor relations. "That's one of the big challenges for the labor movement. We'll sign online petitions, but we won't vote with our wallets."
For years, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union has tried and failed to organize Wal-Mart workers. In recent months, the union has adopted a new tactic: backing two groups, OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, and waging a media campaign and mounting protests composed of activists and Wal-Mart workers at stores and warehouses across the U.S.
The protesters are asking for more-predictable schedules, less-expensive health care plans and minimum hourly pay of $13 with the option of working full-time. The average hourly full-time wage at Wal-Mart is $12.57, Kory Lundberg, a company spokesman, said in an email.
Back of the Yards resident Tyrone Robinson plans to work from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving but said he will skip his Black Friday shift at a Chatham Wal-Mart Supercenter to protest.
While he said he enjoys the fast pace of his job and meeting new people, he also thinks pay should be higher. He earns $8.95 per hour replenishing produce.
"By working at the largest retail corporation in the world, they can afford to pay me what I (should) earn," said Robinson, 33.
Last week, Wal-Mart fired a warning shot, filing a complaint against the food workers union with the National Labor Relations Board. Wal-Mart accused the group of violating federal labor laws by inappropriately picketing, demonstrating, trespassing on company property and intimidating customers and employees — or making threats to do those things.
Wal-Mart asked the board for an investigation and immediate injunction.
"We are taking this action now because we cannot allow the UFCW to continue to intentionally seek to create an environment that could directly and adversely impact our customers and associates," David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "If they do, they will be held accountable."
Officials at the board said Tuesday that it is unlikely to make any decision before Thursday.
Meanwhile, OUR Walmart has filed its own charge with the NLRB, saying Wal-Mart was illegally attempting to deter workers from participating in strikes Friday.