For months, politicians and activists have been saying that the low prices at the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores, come at a tremendous cost to its low-paid employees. They point to lawsuits that contend the company discriminates against women and forces low-paid employees to work through lunch breaks and after their shifts, without extra compensation. Wal-Mart has also been boosting its political contributions to stop initiatives aimed at forcing the retailer to raise pay and benefits.
Now, as Wal-Mart rolls out a new round of workplace restrictions, employees at a Wal-Mart Super Center in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., are taking matters into their own hands. On Oct. 16, workers on the morning shift walked out in protest against the new policies and rallied outside the store, shouting "We want justice" and criticizing the company's recent policies as "inhuman." Workers said the number of participants was about 200, or nearly all of the people on the shift.
The protest wasn't led by any union group. Rather, it was instigated by two department managers, Guillermo Vasquez and Rosie Larosa. The department managers were not affected directly by the changes, but they felt that the company had gone too far with certain new policies. Among them were moves to cut the hours of full-time employees from 40 hours a week to 32 hours, along with a corresponding cut in wages, and to compel workers to be available for shifts around the clock.
In addition, the shifts would be decided not by managers, but by a computer at company headquarters. Employees could find themselves working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. one week and noon to 9 p.m. the next. "So workers cannot pick up their children after school everyday, and part-timers cannot keep another job because they can be called to work anytime," says Vasquez.
In addition to scheduling changes and reduction in hours, workers are now required to call an 800 number when they are sick. "If we are at an emergency room and spend the night in a hospital and cannot call the number, they won't respect that," says Larosa, who has worked at the store for six years. "It will be counted as an unexcused absence."
The scheduling changes, which have been rolled out in Wal-Mart stores around the country in recent weeks, are a sign that the retailer is acting on ideas outlined in an internal document that was leaked last year. In the memo, a Wal-Mart executive said it would find ways to rid its payroll of full-time and unhealthy employees who are more expensive for the company to retain.
Wal-Mart executives have recently told Wall Street analysts that the company wants to transform its workforce from 20 percent part-time to 40 percent. Recently, it was also reported that older employees in some stores who had back and leg problems were barred from using stools on which they had sat for years.
What's next at the Hialeah Gardens store, where store managers have had to pitch in to keep the store open? Is this the first step to forming a union at the store? That's unlikely, given the fate of previous attempts to unionize store employees. When employees in Jonquière, Que., Canada, voted last year to unionize, Wal-Mart shut the store. Vasquez says the workers haven't really talked about their plans, beyond getting the company to change its practices. "At this point, we just want to be heard," he says.
From Businessweek via MSNBC: