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Walmart worker strike on Black Friday?

November 20, 2012, 1:29 AM

So like many people, I got wind that there are strikes planned at Walmart stores this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  These leave me with very mixed feelings.  First of all, some of you may recall that I am a former Walmart employee, who worked for the company for a little over three years, from late 2003 to early 2007.  My employment ended there when I was fired for what I would consider to be questionable reasons.  And then I have made it no secret that I am quite pro-union.  I think that Walmart employees need a union badly, because Walmart is not looking out for its employees’ interests, no matter what kind of anti-union propaganda they throw at their employees, and their anti-union manuals prove it.  Thus employees must stand up for themselves.  But at the same time, I’m not sure about these tactics, because I fear that the groups behind these actions may, though well-intentioned, be leading these people off of the proverbial cliff.

First of all, on the matter of Walmart and what they provide their employees, I don’t think I ever made more than $7.50 per hour the whole time I was there.  For the first six months of my employment there, the insurance was a joke.  Full-time employees were eligible for the real insurance only after six months’ service, and before that, you were offered coverage through a company that I’d never heard of, and it was basically a reimbursement plan.  In other words, you had a plan where you would go to the doctor, pay out of pocket, and maybe – just maybe – the insurance company would pay you back for it.  I never had to use that insurance, thankfully, so I can’t speak for how well it worked out.  But it felt like a scam from the get-go.  After six months’ service, I got the real insurance, which was Blue Cross.  That was better than the junk insurance that they offered the new employees, but not by much.  If I recall, the package for one person was around $15 per pay period, and it came with a $1,000 deductible.  Yes, before the insurance would actually pay for anything, you had to spend a thousand dollars.  Thus in most years, you paid $390 per year for the privilege of paying out of pocket for all of your health care expenses anyway.  The only time the insurance actually paid for anything was in 2005 when I had that pilonidal cyst taken out, and I hit my deductible in February (yes, $1000 in medical bills in a month’s time).  And even then, it didn’t cover much, and the copays were pretty ridiculous.  I will say that I don’t know how much Obamacare will affect what Walmart provides its employees, though, and this information comes from my experience from several years ago.

Then the attitude that I got from the company was that they could do whatever they wanted because you were expendable.  And they made no secret about how expendable their employees were, too.  Seriously, as a Walmart employee, you were viewed as lower than scum.  And even when off the clock and shopping, you were still below the “real” customers.  Seriously, I learned pretty quickly that if you had a complaint as a customer and identified yourself as an employee, your complaint went nowhere because you weren’t a real customer.  I also got the vibe that they viewed the customers as expendable as well, since their belief was that the customers would come back no matter what they did, though they had to pay some lip service to the customers to keep them coming through the doors.

The problem with this attitude is that Walmart is nothing without its workers.  Without the many people who are out there stocking shelves, running the cash registers, unloading trucks, and moving pallets of merchandise around the store, Walmart would grind to a halt.  Thus as much as Walmart wishes to remind its employees that they are expendable, they do need them to function.

So when I heard about these various “strike” actions at various Walmart facilities over the last couple of months, including at the Laurel, Maryland store near me, I was pleased.  I was thinking that people are finally getting it, and that this may be a first step towards reforming such a rotten company.  However, in doing some further thinking about it after getting wind of these planned Black Friday events, I became a bit wary of the whole movement.  The bottom line here as I see it is that while these actions seem like union activities, there still isn’t a union at Walmart.  Walmart isn’t legally obligated to respect anything that these organizations are doing, and the employees are legally viewed as individuals – not a collective.  And in my experience with Walmart, I found that they won’t do anything that they aren’t legally required to do, and even then they won’t do it without a fight.

Thus with the Walmart Black Friday actions, I’m worried for the employees who might participate.  I think the idea of hitting the company on a big shopping day is sound enough, but lacking the legal protections that unions are afforded, I’m worried that any employees that walk out or otherwise don’t show up are being enticed to walk off a cliff, because since there’s no union to represent these workers that Walmart would be legally obligated to respect, Walmart would be able to just fire the employees that participate and move on.  In reading about the planned actions in the media, the company has already made veiled threats to that effect, saying through a spokesperson that “there could be consequences“.  So basically, I’m worried that there’s insufficient legal framework in place for someone to have these employees’ backs.  I’m worried that the employees that join this action, while commendable in their intentions, are signing their own death warrants because no one is legally obligated to represent them if/when Walmart fires them or otherwise disciplines them.  I think these strikes carry too much risk and that there’s not enough to gain from it.  I think it’s a good idea in theory, but I don’t think there’s enough to gain from it in the way it’s being executed here.

When the first actions happened, I thought about what I would have done if these sorts of things had happened when I was at Walmart.  I came to the conclusion that I probably would not have joined in, for exactly the reasons that I described – too much to lose and not enough to gain.  I would have gladly signed a union card, but this sort of action would have been too risky, and I had obligations that I still had to meet.

Now there’s one thing, though, that I want to draw a distinction on: the timing of the Black Friday sale.  The fact that Walmart is starting its Black Friday sales at 8 PM on Thanksgiving is a bit of a red herring in all of this.  From what I can tell, even in a union environment, those sorts of things are still the sole prerogative of management.  Take an action to lessen Walmart’s ability to profit during the sale, sure.  But such sales would still go on, union or not, because that falls under “management rights”.  The only way that Walmart and others are going to stop having these sales at such ridiculous hours is if they are unprofitable.  So if you think that having the Black Friday sales start in the evening on Thanksgiving itself is ridiculous and is the point where the sales have gone too far, we need to make these sales unprofitable.  Don’t go shopping at these ridiculous hours.  Convince your friends to do likewise.  Do what we all used to do on Thanksgiving: get drunk and then pass out on the couch while watching football.  Shop later.  I’ve never thought that the deals were worth the hassle to get them when you factor in the time spent camping out waiting for the sales and such to even start, and even then there are still no guarantees.  And if stores don’t make enough money to make it worthwhile to operate the store at these obscene hours, they won’t.  Make it unprofitable for them.

So there you have it, I suppose.  I will be in Stuarts Draft on Black Friday, and my plans include taking the Soul over to Charlie Obaugh Kia in Staunton for its first scheduled maintenance.  And I already did my research: there will be no Black Friday actions at my ex-store in Waynesboro, nor at the Staunton store.  If there had been, though, I would have gone over to show my support for the employees who were participating.

Web site: Locations of Walmart actions this Friday

Postscript: And if anyone is wondering why I appear to be pouring gasoline and other accelerants onto my bridges with Walmart and then setting them on fire, remember: they fired me. They are the ones who burned the bridge. Not me. Trust me when I say that I will never work for Walmart again, ever. And I'm fine with that. To say otherwise gives them power over me from beyond the grave of our former employment relationship, and I am not going to let them exercise that sort of power over me indefinitely, considering how I was treated while in their employment. They're scum, and I'll say as much.

Categories: Walmart