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.
Earlier this week about 200 Wal-Mart employees in Florida walked out in protest of Wal-Mart’s practices to employees.
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.
It’s the first time that Wal-Mart has faced a worker-led revolt of such scale, according
to both employees and the company. Just as surprising, the company quickly said it would
change at least one of the practices that had sparked the protest. Late in the day on
Oct. 16, there was some disagreement over which of the new policies would be put on hold.
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
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.”
Will the protest make a difference?
The employees drafted a protest letter that they have sent to executives at Wal-Mart
headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and also to Florida politicians, including Florida
Governor Jeb Bush. “In the letter, we state that we want justice and that Wal-Mart should
stop harassing us,” says Vasquez. At least 400 store employees have signed the letter.
Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar says his understanding is that the protest was prompted by
the reduction in hours, which he says was simply a mistake. “The new schedules posted
made it seem like some hours were reduced, but that was inaccurate and we have corrected
it.” Tovar wouldn’t talk about the sick-leave issue, saying that he wasn’t aware the
topic was raised by the workers. As for the changes in shifts, he says: “Our schedules
are set so that we have adequate staff during the busiest hours of the day.”
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.
The moves come as the company is struggling to keep its profits growing at the rapid rate
that they have in the past. As it squeezes its workforce expenses and trims costs in all
corners, it is also expanding overseas. On Oct. 16, The Wall Street Journal reported that
Wal-Mart has agreed to spend $1 billion to acquire Trust-Mart, a closely held Taiwanese
company that owns one of the largest food and department store chains in China.
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.
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