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  April 29, 2013

Walmart Workers Protest Cuts to Hours and Scheduling Policy

Josh Eidelson: Workers say Walmart scheduling consigns workers to poverty through insufficient hours and wreaks havoc on their personal lives
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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On April 24, there were actions at 150 Walmart locations. Here to give us some background as to why these Walmart employees were striking their company's scheduling policies is Josh Eidelson. Josh covers labor as a contributing writer at The Nation, Salon, and In These Times. He appears frequently as a commentator on labor and politics on radio and TV. And he is based in New York.

Thank you for joining us, Josh.


DESVARIEUX: So, Josh, I sort of mispoke a little bit. They're not striking. They're actually actions that happened nationwide yesterday at Walmart locations. What exactly do these workers want? And why are they conducting these actions?

EIDELSON: So these actions, these delegations where groups of workers go together to confront a manager, were all actions designed to call attention and create pressure around Walmart's scheduling policy, schedules that workers say are erratic and insufficient, that they say consign workers to poverty through insufficient hours, wreak havoc on their personal lives by making it difficult to predict when they will or won't be working in order to get an additional job or take on commitments with their family, and also shortchange customers.

Workers say that this way that the schedules are created at Walmart, this race-to-the-bottom business model has left customers without the support that they need in the stores, has made it difficult for workers who are committed to customer service to actually serve customers effectively. One worker shared with me the story from her Washington State store of 2,000 pounds of Halloween candy that never made it out on the shelves for Halloween because of understaffing. She said that candy ended up being put out months later, once the candy had changed color, started to turn white. Nobody bought it, and in the end it was thrown out because the company had chosen not to put more people to work.

DESVARIEUX: Well, just if anyone was hearing that, you would think that's bad for business, obviously. Is it actually bad for Walmart's business? How are they doing?

EIDELSON: Walmart is making quite a bit of money. There have been recently some mainstream media stories that have suggested that customer satisfaction has taken a dip there, that have suggested that Walmart's profitability could be hurt by a lack of workers on the floor.

That said, Walmart saves money by not putting more people to work for more hours. And their business model not only has worked for them so far; it's been adopted by many of their competitors, including unionized companies that are competing with Walmart, and also by companies in other industries. And so we see Walmart, which is the largest retailer, the largest employer in the private sector in the United States and in the world, setting a trend that other companies are following.

DESVARIEUX: And if they're providing workers with fewer hours, that also means that they don't necessarily--they have different quotas for health insurance as well. So there are some employees that don't qualify because they don't work as many hours. Is that correct?

EIDELSON: That's right. There was an outcry from some employees where last year, for the second year in a row, Walmart tightened the restrictions on who is eligible for the Walmart health insurance plan. You now have to work 30 hours a week. And some workers say that that restriction or the increase in the cost to employees has led them to go without health insurance.

DESVARIEUX: And how is even the quality of care once they get health insurance?

EIDELSON: Walmart--The City Journal, the magazine of the conservative Manhattan Institute, argued many years ago that Walmart is attempting to redefine health insurance. They saw this as a good thing, but to redefine health insurance as something that's available in a catastrophe rather than something that pays most of the costs of taking care of yourself and going to the doctor. And so this narrowing allows Walmart to tell media-friendly stories about workers who had truly awful tragedies and received so-called red carpet service from Walmart, where they were flown to special clinics, put up in hotels.

On the other hand, workers who needed routine care have complained over the past years that that has not consistently been covered by that plan, that what the Walmart plan covers has been limited, and that that issue is made much worse by the low wages that they receive.

DESVARIEUX: What are you hearing from workers now? What's in store for them in the future for different actions and so on?

EIDELSON: So what took place on Wednesday was the most significant mobilization by Walmart workers in terms of the number of workers, the number of stores involved that we've seen in the United States in the retail store since November, when there were the historic Black Friday strikes. Many people asked, after those strikes, which had grown from 100-some workers striking at retail stores in October to 500-some in November, where the campaign would go from here. These delegations on Wednesday, while they were not strikes, while they were not as dramatic as people walking off the job, are important in part because they show the campaign continuing the focus that was what made the strikes possible in the first place, which is developing leaders in individual stores who are able to mobilize coworkers.

What we have seen so far in this Walmart campaign, and in parallel campaigns like those by the fast food and retail workers who went on strike in Chicago on Wednesday, is that the courage of one group of workers can inspire more coworkers. It engages customers, engages coworkers, engages the media in a way that campaigns in the media or press conferences don't, in a way that past efforts against Walmart, funded by some of the same unions in the 2000s, did not. And so this week was one test of how many more people will come out, how many more people have been engaged by those strikes.

How they move forward is an open question, but Walmart is a 1.4 million member U.S. direct employee workforce. And so for this campaign to begin to bring Walmart to heel, it would have to grow exponentially and much bigger. And if it does that, it will be through a combination of developing leadership in the stores and continuing something that's characterized this campaign so far in addition, which is savvy organizing through the Walmart supply chain, figuring out ways that Walmart is vulnerable through organizing guest workers at the supplier in Louisiana, organizing warehouse workers in California and Illinois who have greater industrial leverage in terms of being able to block Walmart's ability to move its goods because of where they're situated in Walmart's supply chain.

DESVARIEUX: Well, we'll certainly be keeping track of this story. Thank you, Josh, for joining us.

EIDELSON: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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