When Larry Born’s privately-owned retail business closed its doors during the recession in 2009, he sought employment at Walmart. He said he didn’t know it at the time, but he walked into a “predatory employer” that pays “slave wages.” Born was one of nearly 100 people who protested outside Chicago’s Walmart Express store, at 570 West Monroe St., to demand better wages and improved working conditions for the employees of the world’s largest retailer.
When Larry Born’s privately-owned retail business closed its doors during the recession in 2009, he sought employment at Walmart. He said he didn’t know it at the time, but he walked into a “predatory employer” that pays “slave wages.”
“They use workers, then spit them out,” said Born, 54, a full-time sales associate at Walmart’s store in Crestwood for more than three years. “They take advantage of vulnerable people, desperate for a job, then exploit them. I mean the amount of work we are asked to do for the amount of pay is absolutely ridiculous.”
Born was one of nearly 100 people who protested outside Chicago’s Walmart Express, at 570 West Monroe St., to demand better wages and improved working conditions for the employees of the world’s largest retailer.
The protest was timed to coincide with the culmination of a weeklong demonstration outside the retailer’s headquarters in Bentonville, AR. More than 100 striking workers from the UFCW-backed United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) group have been staging protests since Saturday in anticipation of Friday’s Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, AR.
Born’s wife, Marie, is one of six Illinoisans to travel to Bentonville to participate in the strike. Marie has worked as a full-time stock clerk in the same Crestwood Walmart branch as her husband for nearly two years.
“Walmart sets the standard and creates the conditions that are driving our economy in a race to the bottom,” said Born, adding that both he and his wife are uninsured. “They’re setting a precedent and other businesses are following suit.”
While Larry Born makes an hourly wage of $10.55, his wife, Marie, makes $10.10 per hour. He said, following the collapse of his business and consequential employment at Walmart, the couple has had to make “serious cutbacks,” including selling one of their two cars.
“Walmart is the classic predatory employer,” he said, adding that he is repeatedly asked to work eight or nine days in a row.
Attended by approximately 14,000 employees, board members, CEO Mike Duke and members of the Walton family, who founded the company and collectively own more than half of the retail giant’s shares, Friday’s shareholder meeting was hosted by actor Hugh Jackman and featured performances from Kelly Clarkston, Jennifer Hudson and John Legend.
Walmart’s revenues reached $466.1 billion in fiscal year 2013, which ended January 31, up 5 percent over fiscal year 2012.
The company was granted a temporary restraining order against OUR Walmart and UFCW protesters in Arkansas, preventing demonstrators from doing anything on Walmart property other than shop.
Here’s more from Chicago’s protest:
Despite the lavish event, the shareholder meeting comes at a tumultuous time for the retailer.
In November, a Bangladesh factory that produced Walmart clothing caught fire, killing 112 people. Then in April, a nearby factory in Bangladesh that also produced Walmart clothes, although the company has attempted to distance itself from the supplier, collapsed, resulting in the largest death toll in the international garment industry’s history. Combined, the disasters lead to 1,239 fatalities.
“We see a pattern of behavior from Walmart where they try to avoid responsibility,” said Leah Fried, spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers For Justice, which has organized strikes for Illinois workers at a Walmart suppliers in the past and conducted a "truth tour" about the company in 2011. “They are responsible for their supply chain, and they’ve instituted their own process to review conditions, but it’s completely ineffectual.”
Also, the New York Times reported in 2012 that a Walmart subsidiary in Mexico bribed authorities in order to expand across the country. With more than $200,000 in bribes, authorities permitted construction of a Walmart strategically close to the tourist-drawing ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán. For a bribe of $341,000, Walmart was able to build a Sam’s Club near the Basílica de Guadalupe, despite a lack of permits or licenses. Thanks to a $765,000 bribe, a flood basin north of Mexico City is now home to a Walmart distribution center.
Activist shareholders and investors, including the largest public pension fund in the country, Calpers, presented proposals at the shareholder meeting Friday, calling on the company to increase oversight.
“We have the finest board of any company,” Robson Walton, said during the meeting. “As board members, integrity, transparency and openness guide our decisions.”
Meanwhile, more than 40 global brands, including Target and Kmart, have signed the Bangladesh Factory Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which calls for independent building inspections and allows workers the opportunity to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. Walmart has not signed the accord.
“We need to target these board members and let them know things have got to change,” said Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, who helped organize Friday’s protest in Chicago. “As board members, they have a role in governing the company, and they have an opportunity to call for Walmart to respect workers and improve conditions across the country, and the world.”
Amidst international scandals, Walmart workers in the U.S. have been engaged in an ongoing effort to raise wages and improve working conditions for nearly a year. Hundreds of Walmart workers staged a nationwide walkout on Black Friday last fall.
“Walmart workers, and warehouse workers, are not paid living wages. Most can’t afford or don’t have access to health benefits and, as community members, we know that we need Walmart to treat their workers better so we can change our economy,” said Hurley.
Included in the list of resolutions for the company to adopt, the proposal called for Walmart to “provide full-time scheduling, affordable, accessible health care coverage, and a living wage for all retail workers.” It also demands that the retailer “treat workers in their U.S. contracted warehouses and throughout their global supply chain with dignity and respect.”
Here’s more from Hurley:
“All workers deserve respect,” said Mike Compton, 35, a former Walmart warehouse worker who participated in a strike last fall. “Nobody should have to work so hard for little pay, like I did."
Compton was employed through a temporary staffing agency that placed him at Schneider Logistics, the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois. After a 21-day strike that ended in October, Compton was brought back to work for a month before he left.
He was making $10 per hour to work in the factory and did not have health insurance or other benefits.
“They’re the largest retailer in the world; they set the standard,” Compton said. “What they do reverberates throughout our economy, and something needs to change."