By Edmundo Saballos, DC NLG
“It’s not just about Walmart workers, but about all of us… We’re in the struggle for all workers in the US,” Cynthia Murray, a worker organizer with OUR Walmart told 40 participants at the January 19th panel discussion, “What’s next in the fight to organize Walmart and in the struggle for a living wage?” DCNLG Labor & Employment Committee and the NLG chapter of the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law organized the event. Murray was joined by Silvia Fabela and attorney Joey Hipolito, both with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and Ari Schwartz, with DC Jobs with Justice.
Hosted at the only publicly funded university in Washington DC, the event took place in a period of renewed resistance by working people to the decline in their working and living conditions. Last November, workers organized by OUR Walmart, with the support of the UFCW, carried out sit-down strikes in Walmart stores in Washington DC. Previously, in 2014, the DC City Council, under pressure from community groups and the labor movement, passed legislation requiring Walmart to pay its employees $12.50 per hour. The “Large Retailer Accountability Act”, as the legislation was called, was later vetoed by then Democratic Mayor Vincent Grey. The Mayor’s veto came after Walmart threatened to cancel plans for the stores under construction at that time.
The fight for higher wages at Walmart also comes in response to the growing income inequality in the city and the displacement of minority residents. According to DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the average income of the top fifth of households in the city is 29 times the income of the bottom fifth. This has led to an exodus of working class residents, most of them Blacks and Latinos, who can no longer afford to live in the city. Glova Scott, a stock worker at Walmart, exemplifies the growing class polarization in the city: working the night shift, she makes $10.90 an hour (roughly $1500 a month after taxes). A one-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC now costs more than $1700.
However, the fight by workers at Walmart is not limited to a raise in their hourly wages. In her presentation, Murray explained that workers are also organizing to gain respect. She described how OUR Walmart began with 100 members after workers realized that management “didn’t care about how they treated us” and how now, after going through the recent sit-down strikes, workers are stronger and in a better position to wrest concessions from management. OUR Walmart has been able to get Walmart to create a database for part-time workers to pick up hours, while still demanding $15 an hour with a full-time schedule, and light-duty assignment for pregnant employees.
Impact of “OUR Walmart”
Silvia Fabela explained how these victories at Walmart have changed the conversation of how a responsible corporation should act. She also said that recent actions have sparked important discussions of what city “development” should look like as alternatives to the current gentrification model in Washington DC.
Joey Hipolito explained the role of the legal department of the UFCW in supporting the workers. Lawyers have been crucial in demanding that Walmart respect the right of workers to raise demands on the job. Finally, Ari Schwartz told participants in the forum about ways they could support the workers at Walmart. Schwartz invited participants to join Respect DC and other community organizations in pressuring Walmart to sign a “community based agreement” that would require further concessions from the corporation. ■
For more about OUR Walmart, visit their website at forrespect.org.
Featured Image: OUR Walmart members holding a hold a rally in Washington, DC last Fall. (facebook.com/OURWMT)
UPDATE: On February 19, Walmart announced that they will raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour!