Last month, when strikers from Southern California arrived in Bentonville, Arkansas to protest Wal-Mart’s labor practices with reggae beats, pots and pans, and a Latin American-inflected protest culture, it became clear to onlookers that America’s superstore was no longer the small family business that Sam Walton had founded and grown in the cradle of the anti-labor culture of Southern evangelicaldom. But it’s also become clear that Wal-Mart’s own ambitions to become a global empire—expanding beyond southern suburbs to new regions, and continuing to erode protections for its workers—have brought the “family values” behemoth into confrontation with another kind of religious and labor rights tradition.
Wal-Mart has long been the Holy Grail for labor organizers. The nation’s largest retailer, it is notorious for its low wages, lack of benefits, abusive labor practices, and for leaving its workers dependent on public assistance while making the Walton family rich beyond imagination. And it has been nearly impossible to organize.
Today, again, Wal-Mart workers are on the picket lines outside warehouses in Mira Loma, California, and more actions are expected elsewhere as the workers build their campaign. In October, 28 Wal-Marts saw retail workers walk off the job in protest, in stores from California to Maryland, Texas to Washington. Warehouse workers at Wal-Mart distribution centers outside Chicago and in Los Angeles have also gone out on strike—and won. The full reinstatement and back pay granted to the workers (averaging $900 for each) was unprecedented, leading one of the strikers to comment, “I think there’s been a hit in Wal-Mart’s armor.”
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