Above: The Walmart on Atlantic Boulevard in Canton is collecting food for employees who can’t afford Thanksgiving dinner. The company said this is proof that employees look out for one another. The group of employees who have held national strikes against the world’s largest retailer says the food drive is proof Walmart doesn’t pay associates enough to survive. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, is holding strikes against the chain at stores in Dayton and Cincinnati on Monday, Nov. 18. (courtesy of OUR Walmart)
Is Walmart’s request of associates to help provide Thanksgiving dinner for co-workers proof of low wages?
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The storage containers are attractively displayed at the Walmart on Atlantic Boulevard in Canton. The bins are lined up in alternating colors of purple and orange. Some sit on tables covered with golden yellow tablecloths. Others peer out from under the tables.
This isn’t a merchandise display. It’s a food drive – not for the community, but for needy workers.
“Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner,” read signs affixed to the tablecloths.
The food drive tables are tucked away in an employees-only area. They are another element in the backdrop of the public debate about salaries for cashiers, stock clerks and other low-wage positions at Walmart, as workers in Cincinnati and Dayton are scheduled to go on strike Monday.
Is the food drive proof the retailer pays so little that many employees can’t afford Thanksgiving dinner?
Norma Mills of Canton, who lives near the store, saw the photo circulating showing the food drive bins, and felt both “outrage” and “anger.”
“Then I went through the emotion of compassion for the employees, working for the largest food chain in America, making low wages, and who can’t afford to provide their families with a good Thanksgiving holiday,” said Mills, an organizer with Stand Up for Ohio, which is active in foreclosure issues in Canton. “That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers — to me, it is a moral outrage.”
Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesman, said the food drive is proof that employees care about each other.
“It is for associates who have had some hardships come up,” he said. “Maybe their spouse lost a job.
“This is part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships,” he said.
Lundberg said holding the food drive at the Canton Walmart was decided at the store level. However, the effort could be considered in line with what happens company-wide. The Associates in Critical Need Trust is funded by Walmart employee contributions that can be given through payroll deduction. He said employees can receive grants up to $1,500 to address hardships they may encounter, including homelessness, serious medical illnesses and major repairs to primary vehicles. Since 2001, grants totaling $80 million have been made.
But an employee at the Canton store wasn’t feeling that Walmart was looking out for her when she went to her locker more than two weeks ago and discovered the food drive containers. To her, the gesture was proof the company acknowledged many of its employees were struggling, but also proof it was not willing to substantively address their plight.
The employee said she didn’t want to use her name for fear of being fired. In a dozen years working at the company, she had never seen a food drive for employees, which she described as “demoralizing” and “kind of depressing”. The employee took photos of the bins, and sent them to the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, the group of associates holding the strikes in Cincinnati and Dayton.
Vanessa Ferreira, an OUR Walmart organizer, said she “flipped out” when she first saw the photos taken by the Canton worker.
“Why would a company do that?” she said. “The company needs to stand up and give them their 40 hours and a living wage, so they don’t have to worry about whether they can afford Thanksgiving.”
The strikes against Walmart, which have been staged in the last several weeks across the country, including at stores in California, Florida and Illinois, are focusing on three issues: ensuring that no associate makes less than $25,000 a year, offering employees more full-time work and “ending illegal retaliation” against employees who speak out against pay and working conditions.
The first strike occurred last Black Friday at Walmart stores throughout the country. Though most associates remained on the job, many credit the event with being the public launch of the low-wage workers’ movement. Efforts to raise the minimum wage would follow, including a bill pending before Congress to raise the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. (The minimum wage in Ohio is $7.85.) In the time since, fast-food workers also have staged strikes, demanding the minimum wage be raised.
OUR Walmart won’t say what is planned for this Black Friday, but the group has a news conference scheduled Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Joseph Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, are scheduled to announce organized labor’s commitment to Black Friday efforts.
Lundberg said taken in this context, OUR Walmart had incentive to first misinterpret and then blow out of proportion the food drive at the Canton store as fodder for the campaign.
Erica Reed, an associate at the Canton store, agrees. She said food drives have been going on at the store for a few years, so she questions why they are becoming an issue now. Reed said past food drives helped her cope with her own problems, not caused by low wages but because of losing $500 a month in child support when the father of her four children went to jail. She declined to give her salary.
“It took a burden off me. I didn’t have to worry about how I was getting my turkey to feed them Thanksgiving dinner,” she said.
Reed said it was “ignorant” to question efforts to help people in need or blame Walmart for the economic realities of the labor force nationally.
“You can’t find a decent job anywhere,” she said.
Scott Stringer, a Dayton associate who said he intends to go on strike, said Walmart bears blame because of its dominance. He makes $9.30 an hour after five years with the company.
“Walmart sets the precedent for everybody, so if they make changes, everyone would follow suit,” he said. “The economy and the United States, in general, would be a better place.”
A question of salaries
Lundberg said nationally that associates make $12.87 an hour. The company considers those working at least 34 hours to be full time. He said the average full-time employee works 37 to 38 hours a week. That comes to an annual salary of about $25,000.
OUR Walmart places the average salary at between $8 and $10 an hour, based on glassdoor.com and other websites that compile salaries, often without company participation. Based on that range, the average associate’s salary is roughly between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.
For example, after about a dozen years on the job, the Canton employee who took the photos makes nearly $12 any hour. But the hourly rate is misleading, she said. Though officially a full-time worker, the associate said she only made about $17,000 last year because the company has had a common practice in recent years of cutting hours.
Lundberg said this isn’t true and that the company is committed to having full-time employees. For example, he said company-wide, 35,000 associates are scheduled to be promoted from part time to full time between September and January.
Ricki Hahn, a Dayton associate who intends to strike Monday, said poor working conditions — and not money — motivated her to speak out. She said supervisors consistently berating employees — often in public — is part of Walmart’s culture. So is failing to address unsafe working conditions, such as unsecured shelving in a stock room that could fall on employees, she said.
The company says it has good working conditions, in terms of safety and employee relations.
Hahn, who makes $11.70 an hour after 7ÃÂ½ years, describes her salary as “pretty good” since she knows it is hard for her to get credit for experience in her industry, and she would be back earning near minimum wage should she take a similar job at another retailer. Hahn said she is realistic about the salaries low-skilled workers should make. For example, she supports the federal bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, but believes the fast-food workers demand of $15 is too high.
While the Walmart strike isn’t just about wages, it always seems to come back to money. Hahn is constantly reminded of this during the work day.
“Personally, it is difficult for me to stock groceries that I can’t afford at the end of the day,” she said.
Symbols both in food drive and strike
While Walmart officials and many employees see the food drive bins as a symbol of generosity, others see it differently.
“That captures Walmart right there,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s labor school. “Walmart is setting up bins because its employees don’t make enough to feed themselves and their families.”
Mills, the Canton community activist, said the issue of the food drive drew her in because for her it represented another case of corporations behaving irresponsibly and then leaving the less fortunate to “clean up the mess.” She said if employees can’t afford Thanksgiving, then Walmart should pay for turkey dinners “with all the fixings and all the sides.”
Mills successfully worked toward getting Canton to pass a law requiring banks and other financial institutions to put up bonds so the city wouldn’t be left paying to maintain the homes on which these institutions foreclosed. Many of these foreclosures were the result of subprime and predatory loans, she said.
“I call it the reverse Robin Hood effect,” she said.
Walmart sees the strikes as a symbol without substance. For example, during the highly publicized strikes in Los Angeles earlier this month, the company said no more than 20 associates participated, though there were about 275 demonstrators.
Bronfenbrenner said the company is misinterpreting the low numbers of workers on strike.
“There were many work places, that when the striking workers returned, many workers inside stood up and clapped,” she said.
Both Dayton strikers Hahn and Stringer say they have strong support, even if fellow workers won’t join them on the picket line.
“A lot of friends of mine at work want to go out on strike, but they fear that they won’t be able to support their families if something happens,” Hahn said.
That something could mean losing a job, said Ferreira, the OUR Walmart organizer. She said she got fired after participating in the 2012 Black Friday strikes. Ferreira was terminated some time after the strike on trumped up charges of staying on break too long, she said.
Lundberg said Walmart has a very strong anti-retaliation policy.
Hahn and Stringer see themselves at the beginning of a movement that they believe will mushroom.
“We’ll be speaking out for other areas, like Cleveland, that aren’t striking,” Hahn said. “Just because they aren’t striking Monday, doesn’t mean it can’t happen there soon.”