The manager at the Southside Walmart inÂ Paducah,Â Ky., might have figured he’d quashed the protest at his store.
After all, he made James Vetato and three other OUR Walmart picketers leaveÂ from near the front door.
The quartet retreated, but to regroup at the entrance road toÂ the busy shopping center the Walmart store anchors.
They redeployed under a big blue and white Walmart signÂ and held upÂ hand-lettered placards reading, “ON STRIKE FOR THE FREEDOM TO SPEAK OUT,” “RESPECTÂ ASSOCIATESÂ DONâ€™T SILENCE ASSOCIATES,” “ULPÂ [unfair labor practice]Â STRIKE” and “WALMARTÂ STOPÂ BULLYING ASSOCIATES WHOÂ SPEAKÂ OUT.”
Vetato, his wife, Trina, Rick Thompson and Amber Frazee were amongÂ manyÂ members of Organization United For Respect at Walmart — “OUR Walmart”Â for short —Â who struck and walked picket lines atÂ stores inÂ a reportedÂ 100Â cities and towns in 46 statesÂ on ThanksgivingÂ night and onÂ Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.
The group, whichÂ numbersÂ thousands of current and past Walmart employeesÂ across the country,Â wanted to focus national attention onÂ Walmart’s abuse ofÂ its workers,Â VetatoÂ said.
The world’s richest retailer, Walmart is knownÂ for paying low wages to its employees, called “associates.”Â In addition,Â Walmart isÂ fiercely anti-union.
Said Trina Vetato:
“People honkedÂ and waved to show their support,Â andÂ they slowed down to read the signs. Some people stopped and told us they supported what we were doing.”
VetatoÂ works at the Southside store. Her husband did, too, until he said management drove him to quit.
FrazeeÂ is employedÂ at another Walmart in historicÂ Paducah, where theÂ TennesseeÂ andÂ OhioÂ rivers merge. She and Vetato expectÂ retaliation from Walmart management.
“They said that there will be consequences,”Â Vetato said. “Iâ€™ll probably get fired or put on suspension or something. But itâ€™s well worth it to me.”
Frazee agreed. “All we want is respect,” she said.
TheÂ Vetatos, Frazee and Thompson handed out leaflets explaining, “We are the life-blood of Walmart, yet we are not always treated with respect.”
Some of theÂ literatureÂ outlined a “Declaration of Respect,” which nearly 100 OUR Walmart members, including James Vetato,Â deliveredÂ to Walmart’s topÂ management atÂ company headquarters inÂ Bentonville, Ark.
The declaration calls on Wal-Mart management to
—Â Listen to associates.
—Â RespectÂ associatesÂ and recognize their right to free association and free speech.
— AllowÂ associatesÂ toÂ challengeÂ working conditions without fear of retribution.
— Pay a minimum of $13 an hour andÂ makeÂ full-time jobsÂ availableÂ forÂ associatesÂ who want them.
— Create dependable and predictable work schedules.
— Provide affordable health care.
— Furnish eachÂ associateÂ a policy manual that ensures “equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination” and affordsÂ every employeeÂ an “equal opportunity to succeed and advance in his or her career.”
The four Paducah protestors brought a cardboard box filled with OUR Walmart literature. They saidÂ management tried to keepÂ it out of theÂ store.Â ShoppersÂ helped get itÂ in.
“On Thanksgiving night, a community member took one of the fliers and taped it to the front of his shirt and walked through the store to get the word out to everybody,” Trina Vetato said.
Thompson, aÂ PittsburghÂ union activist, came toÂ PaducahÂ to join the picket line. When aÂ member of managementÂ tried to stop him from handing out leaflets, anotherÂ customer came to his aid.
Explained Thompson, a member of Vacaville, Calif.-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245:
“The manager started bullying me for peacefully disseminating information, which I had the right to do. When the customerÂ saw the manager walk away, she said ‘Give me a stack of those. I’ll take them in for you and pass them out.'”
Thompson said OUR Walmart is not trying to driveÂ Walmart out of business. “We are not asking a single customer to turn away. We are fighting to win respect and improve working conditions for all associates.
“We want employees to have a chance to form their own associationÂ andÂ have their own concerted actionsÂ without retaliation and unfair treatment.Â Walmart is not a feudal manor. The associates are not serfs. Walmart does not own every aspect of their lives.”
This post was originally posted on November 24, 2012 at Union Review. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is a recording secretary for the Paducah-basedÂ Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area CouncilÂ and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360. His articles can also be featured on AFL-CIO NOW.