CHICAGO - A protest outside the West Loop Walmart store here by members of at least 12 different unions and community groups was only one of countless demonstrations that broke out today across the country in support of striking workers at the world's biggest retail giant.
The actions took place as civil rights movement-style caravans of strikers from both the East and West coasts and from the nation's heartland descended on the Walmart shareholders' meeting in Bentonville, Ark. There they protested the company's practice of retaliating against workers who speak out for regular hours, a living wage, health care benefits and the right to form a union.
Marchers here and around the country backed those demands but often came to the protests with their own sets of complaints against Walmart. The coalitions that put together today's actions represented a broad range of groups and concerns.
Norine Gutekanst, a teacher and a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she was on the picket line in support of Walmart strikers because "these folks are the parents of the children we teach. There is a direct correlation between poverty and the ability of children to learn. I reject the idea that it is OK for the parents of the children I work with to be treated the way they are on their jobs."
Brandon Johnson, another teacher on the picket line outside the Walmart store, said it was "a shame that Walmart got 23 million dollars in taxpayer funds to open up here in this city when at the same time the city says it has no money and is closing 50 of our schools."
Walmart workers were not shy about expressing their appreciation for the broad support they were getting.
Larry Bourne, a member of Our Walmart and a worker at the Crestwood, Il. Walmart, is on strike now while his wife, who also works at that store, is in Bentonville, Ark. protesting at the shareholders' meeting.
As he picketed outside the Chicago Walmart this morning, he slammed what he called Walmart's "predatory policies."
"They even terminate you just for taking a sick day to which you are supposed to be entitled," he said. "And the human resources people are really slick. They know that you can't live on what they pay you so they bring you in and show you how to game the social welfare system. They get you on food stamps or any other form of public assistance they can get you on. It's a disgrace that with a full time job you should have to go on food stamps."
Nevertheless, Bourne said the support of so many groups has helped the Walmart workers. "I'm active at my store. When they heard that we were going to have a picketline they urged me to take the day off because they are afraid of the organized workers. I attribute their failure to retaliate against me or to get rid of me to the wide support we are getting from everybody else," he said.
Bourne is among the Walmart workers who last week began the first "prolonged" strike in the 50-year history of the nation's largest employer. Last fall Walmart workers across the country had staged a series of one-day strikes demanding a $13 per hour minimum wage, health care benefits, regular full-time hours and an end to retaliation against workers who try to organize.
As the demonstration here today showed, Walmart's "race to the bottom" practices hurt not just its workers but also a broad section of U.S. taxpayers. A Walmart worker earning on average $8.81 per hour, is often dependent on food stamps, subsidized housing and childcare, Medicaid and other forms of public assistance.
People's World reporters entered the store and asked at the courtesy desk to speak with the manager about some of these issues. In a few moments a man who identified himself as Jack Williams, marketing director for Chicago Walmart, arrived at the counter and said that it was he, and not the store manager who was authorized to speak with the media. When asked about the demand by Walmart associates demonstrating outside that they be paid a living wage, he replied that all questions would have to be answered by "media relations" in Bentonville and that he, the marketing manager, was busy because of the demonstration.
When a representative small group of striking and demonstrating employees had tried to enter the store a few moments earlier security personnel blocked their path, telling them only shoppers were allowed in.
"Walmart won't talk to its own workers, what a shame," declared Susan Hurley, director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, when she came out after being barred from the store. Hurley told the crowd outside about the shareholders' meeting in Bentonville and passed out green "voting cards" to people in the crowd. "We'll hold our own shareholders meeting here, " she said to loud cheers.
The "shareholders" gathered on the street held up their cards to approve a number of resolutions including ones that called for full time scheduling and health care for workers and one that called for reimbursement to Illinois of the $24 million in taxpayer funds that Walmart has received.
Photo: Chicagoans show their solidarity with Walmart workers June 7 (PW/Blake Deppe).