I worked for Wal-Mart just under a year. I was fired two days before Christmas, which in retrospect was probably the best holiday bonus I could have received.
When I started, I knew very little about unions, even less about workers’ power and nothing about working-class history. I’d like to credit Sam Walton with radicalizing me, but mostly, that’s because I know he would be rolling in his grave at the thought.
As a member of the 4-to-1 crew (4 p.m. to 1 a.m.), my responsibilities were to unload up to three trucks a night, with freight ranging from 1,000 pieces to 2,300 and up; stack the freight according to department; and pull it to the floor for overnights to restock the shelves.
According to the program description, this job required 14 unloaders, but we rarely had more than eight.“We were intentionally understaffed,” John Murphy, a former support manager with seven years on the job (during one of which, he was my direct supervisor), told me in an interview for this article.
“A truck has six-and-a-half panels; managers are told that each panel should take no more than 10 minutes to unload, regardless of size and amount of freight,” Murphy said. “A truck should be unloaded and ready to be pulled to the floor in an hour and ten minutes. Realistically, a smaller truck should take 45 minutes to an hour-fifteen; larger-scale trucks up to about an hour-forty-five.” And that’s without considering that we consistently operated with half a crew.
To make matters worse, our equipment was archaic. The line that we used to move freight through the dock along rollers was falling apart–we actually had to use paint buckets to prop it up.
None of this kept management from hopping into the trailer to shout insults, snap their fingers, bark at us or do just about anything to speed things up (except, of course, throw a box themselves).
Not only was the combination of unrealistic expectations, high pressure and decrepit equipment inefficient–it was just plain dangerous. Accidents were a routine part of the job, but John’s complaints fell on deaf ears.
In fact, it was only after a wall of freight literally buried me alive–something that the crew had been warning about for years prior–that we actually received a replacement line.
I was struck so hard at the base of the skull that it knocked the natural curve of my spine ramrod straight.
According to the doctor who examined my X-rays, I was lucky that I hadn’t been paralyzed. I was in physical therapy for weeks–but back on the job at Wal-Mart in a matter of days, holding down the fort in Ladies’ Garments, a point that management seemed to revel in making over the radio.
It was a bureaucratic nightmare to get worker’s comp costs covered. There was a succession of lost faxes, misplaced paperwork and endless games of phone tag.
While I was navigating this labyrinth, the word “union” began to form in my vocabulary.
Apparently, women’s lingerie was Wal-Mart’s dumping ground for the lame, and it didn’t take long before I found someone with a saga far worse than mine–a co-worker whose wrist was crushed between a shelf and a clothing cart. The injury required surgery, but thanks to Wal-Mart, the procedure was delayed for five years, while the bills piled up. At the time, Wal-Mart was self-insured, meaning that it had a legally sanctioned opportunity to manage or mismanage its own claims.
“Don’t let management take care of it,” she advised me.
“They’ll try to guilt you into dropping it, or bully you into letting it go–make it seem like you are hurting the company. But you have to look out for yourself.”
* * *
By the time I was back on the line, I started floating the idea of a union regularly–not as much to see if anyone was interested, but to find out if anyone knew what to do.
The majority of the crew said they’d be in favor of a union, but most raised the same concerns that came up when the Chicago City Council recently considered an ordinance to require a living wage at “big box” retailers. “If we were actually successful in getting a union,” went the argument, “they would just shut down the store and set one up somewhere else.”
The store we worked at provided the perfect counter-argument to this common objection to both union drives and living-wage laws. Nestled in a cluster of affluent suburbs south of Chicago, the store operated in a community with heavy retail competition, and where annual household income was considerably higher than the state average.
But its primary customer base was drawn from poorer suburbs to the south–directly accessible by a main road that literally fed into the Wal-Mart parking lot–and an island of Section 8 public housing that had been built in its backyard. In short, if the store was forced to relocate even a couple blocks from this site, it would feel the pinch having contend with other stores and being cut off from its primary source of poor and working class consumers.
A co-worker who had been through an organizing drive previously set up a meeting with a contact from UCFW. Almost immediately after the meeting was set, it was postponed. Since we worked receiving, the contact told us, we would probably have to meet with somebody else.
A different bureaucratic nightmare of rescheduled appointments and unreturned phone calls followed.
While labor debated, Wal-Mart organized. Over the course of these few weeks, a transfer from a store in Tennessee was brought onto the crew.
His story didn’t seem to add up from the start. Wal-Mart had footed the bill for his transfer, and he was put into a quasi-supervisor position right off the bat.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to keep the guys from inviting him out to the bar with us, but his unconventional conversation topics eventually exposed him as a union-buster. He seemed all too eager to know personal details about the crew, including whether anyone ever stole from the trucks, who on the crew did drugs, etc.
A couple of us finally came up with a plan to freeze him out. We developed a habit of quoting movie lines about undercover narcs anytime he was working the line. His meltdown resulted in an hour-and-45-minute closed-door session with management, and a promotion to manager in another department two days later.
His last day on the line, he approached me, tried to shake my hand and said: “I think that if we had met at another time, under different circumstances, we would probably have been friends.” I told him I doubted it.
As Murphy explains, such tactics are routine. “Managers are expected to take it personally if their employees want to organize,” he said. “At one point, there was a store in Indiana that actually had a campaign underway. Almost immediately, the district transferred managers and assistant managers from throughout the Midwest to work there.
“They initiated these four-hour ‘labor relations’ meetings, where they hand-picked supervisors from every department, through six levels of management, to go over Wal-Mart propaganda–‘Why we are so successful,’ ‘Why employees are better off without a union’-type bullshit.
“They trained us to look for employees that were ‘going against the grain’–employees who not only were frustrated, but who were most likely to do something about it–and we would fire them for bullshit excuses.
“So at least a hundred managers, probably more, from throughout the Midwest actually turn up at this store in Indiana. There were at least one or two from every store in the district. Seriously, what the hell do you need that many managers for? That’s the way they operate though–a hundred managers can be pretty intimidating.”
* * *
At my job, with the union-buster out of the picture, Wal-Mart picked up the pressure. Harassment from managers to speed up unloading grew more intense. They locked the front doors and set the alarms so we wouldn’t be able to leave without a member of management present, and visits from store security became a routine part of our breaks.
At one point, a box of broken merchandise set aside for “claims” mysteriously found its way onto a pallet to be pulled out to the floor, providing the store with enough circumstantial evidence to shake things up on the docks and formally interrogate members of the crew.
I was terminated a few months later. Four of us refused to unload a truck until the manager left the dock. We sat on the boxes and waited patiently while she turned red-faced and stormed off.
One by one, each of us was called into the office and grilled. Expressing a truly unique form of motivational speaking, the overnight manager used an interesting analogy when stressing to me the importance of accepting consequences. “Say I was to lose my temper and punch you in the face,” he asked casually, “there would be repercussions for such behavior, wouldn’t there?” He then handed me a pink slip for “insubordination.”
The lessons I learned from this experience were invaluable. Only through a focused effort to organize unions at Wal-Mart–one that extends beyond public relations efforts and incorporates the whole of the labor movement–will wages and conditions at the retail giant change.
The alarm has been ringing for years, and U.S. workers are awake to Wal-Mart’s exploitation. It’s time for labor to take the cue.
JOSH GRYNIEWICZ writes for the Socialist Worker.