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“Wal-Mart is Not a Feudal Manor”

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The manager at the Southside Walmart in¬†Paducah,¬†Ky., might have figured he’d quashed the protest at his store.

After all, he made James Vetato and three other OUR Walmart picketers leave from near the front door.

The quartet retreated, but to regroup at the entrance road to the busy shopping center the Walmart store anchors.

They redeployed under a big blue and white Walmart sign¬†and held up¬†hand-lettered placards reading, “ON STRIKE FOR THE FREEDOM TO SPEAK OUT,” “RESPECT¬†ASSOCIATES¬†DON‚ÄôT SILENCE ASSOCIATES,” “ULP¬†[unfair labor practice]¬†STRIKE” and “WALMART¬†STOP¬†BULLYING ASSOCIATES WHO¬†SPEAK¬†OUT.”

Vetato, his wife, Trina, Rick Thompson and Amber Frazee were among¬†many¬†members of Organization United For Respect at Walmart — “OUR Walmart”¬†for short —¬†who struck and walked picket lines at¬†stores in¬†a reported¬†100¬†cities and towns in 46 states¬†on Thanksgiving¬†night and on¬†Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

The group, which¬†numbers¬†thousands of current and past Walmart employees¬†across the country,¬†wanted to focus national attention on¬†Walmart’s abuse of¬†its workers,¬†Vetato¬†said.

The world’s richest retailer, Walmart is known¬†for paying low wages to its employees, called “associates.”¬†In addition,¬†Walmart is¬†fiercely anti-union.

Said Trina Vetato:

“People honked¬†and waved to show their support,¬†and¬†they slowed down to read the signs. Some people stopped and told us they supported what we were doing.”

Vetato works at the Southside store. Her husband did, too, until he said management drove him to quit.

Frazee is employed at another Walmart in historic Paducah, where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers merge. She and Vetato expect retaliation from Walmart management.

“They said that there will be consequences,”¬†Vetato said. “I‚Äôll probably get fired or put on suspension or something. But it‚Äôs well worth it to me.”

Frazee agreed. “All we want is respect,” she said.

The¬†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 the¬†literature¬†outlined a “Declaration of Respect,” which nearly 100 OUR Walmart members, including James Vetato,¬†delivered¬†to Walmart’s top¬†management at¬†company headquarters in¬†Bentonville, Ark.

The declaration calls on Wal-Mart management to

—¬†Listen to associates.

—¬†Respect¬†associates¬†and recognize their right to free association and free speech.

— Allow¬†associates¬†to¬†challenge¬†working conditions without fear of retribution.

— Pay a minimum of $13 an hour and¬†make¬†full-time jobs¬†available¬†for¬†associates¬†who want them.

— Create dependable and predictable work schedules.

— Provide affordable health care.

— Furnish each¬†associate¬†a policy manual that ensures “equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination” and affords¬†every employee¬†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 said management tried to keep it out of the store. Shoppers helped get it 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, a Pittsburgh union activist, came to Paducah to join the picket line. When a member of management tried to stop him from handing out leaflets, another 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 customer¬†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 drive¬†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 association¬†and¬†have their own concerted actions¬†without retaliation and unfair treatment.¬†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-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council 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.

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