As thousands of commuters slogged their way home through the traffic and rain showers Thursday, an energetic group of Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and their growing coalition of supporters met in downtown Joliet to listen to several Walmart employees discuss their current plight and to view a documentary film about the marketing and employment practices of the giant corporation and their effects on towns across this country.
Cindy Marble, a spokeswoman for WWJ, introduced the program by welcoming two members of the strikers' group at Walmart’s Elwood facility. Mike Compton and Curtis Tucker each gave descriptions of the totally abusive conditions at the hands of the parent company’s hired temp agencies in its warehouses. They highlighted several illegal actions of Walmart—such as non-payment for all hours worked, non-payment for overtime hours, and the less-than-minimum wages paid. “They refer to us as ‘bodies’, not men and women,” said Compton. “They are the industry standard, because they are the biggest single employer in America. But the standard is so low in terms of humane treatment of employees.”
After the confrontation October 1 at the Elwood outlets in which hundreds took part, the “temp company” (read Walmart) relented on certain issues, hired back the strikers, and guaranteed them back pay. Walmart has made promises to improve working conditions and amend unfair labor policies, but as Cindy Marble put it, “Actions speak louder than words. We’ll see.” Unsafe, abusive working conditions are the subject of numerous current lawsuits against Walmart.
More disturbing by far is the documentary “High Cost of Low Wages,” part of which was played for the assemblage. Segments of the film show the CEO of Walmart speaking at a huge gathering, where he repeatedly touts his company’s concern for its “associates,” the label that Walmart uses to describe in-store employees, virtually all of whom are part-time clerks and gophers. A rosy view is offered of the many thousands of such people, whose hourly rates are also at a subsistence level.
The “associates” themselves paint a totally different portrait, one of despair at being unable to feed their families, pay their rents, and get medical attention—all on wages which are embarrassingly paltry. One single-mother employee shown had to choose between food for her kids and needed medicines, but hers was only a typical case.
The damage inflicted on communities when Walmart moves in are also unnerving. An example noted how in one small town small businesses, property values, and real wages suffered devastating losses—resulting in a virtual ghost community, in which people hang on, but completely without hope.
In this instance, as in all others, Walmart assumed no responsibility, where the mere mention of a workers’ union brought legions of paid henchmen to the store to ferret out those who dared whisper such a term and remove them—sometimes by force.
If that smacks of Nazism, so be it. Curiously, Walmart does a thriving trade in Germany, where labor unions also flourish and Walmart’s wages far outstrip anything offered here in America. As we here continue to vehemently debate government assistance and medical care issues, German Walmart employees enjoy universal health care, six weeks of paid vacation, and don’t need to suffer the very real indignity of being fully employed and yet unable to stave off hunger without food stamps.
Oh, and Walmart CEO Michael Duke is doing pretty well, too--with his total compensation in 2011 of $18,131,738.