CHICAGO - Walmart must pay $4.8 million in back wages and damages to over 4,500 workers nationwide for stolen overtime, the U.S. Labor Department said on May 1. The announcement was made as the enormous retail chain - and its attack on labor - became a focus of the annual May Day march held here yesterday.
The marches - staged here by a coalition of unions, immigrant rights groups, LGBT activists, and Occupy Chicago - served as a powerful forum to address important issues in the ongoing struggle for workers' rights.
"The fines Walmart must pay for stealing overtime wages earned by its workers are just the latest and only one of the injustices resulting from the company's growth-at-any-cost strategy," said Ronald Powell, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881. Powell, who attended the May Day Rally at Haymarket Square here, remarked, "It's another indication of how Walmart's top executives have shown they are willing to break the law and harm workers in the name of more profits."
That rally kicked off a day of May Day demonstrations at the very spot which workers rallied for the eight-hour day a century ago. The leaders of that rally were framed on murder charges when a policemen and workers died after a bomb went off, and their legacy triggered the recognition of May Day as the most widely observed holiday in the world.
Benedicto Matinez Orozco, the guest of honor at the kickoff rally and a leader of the Mexican union federation Frente Autentico de Trabajo, blasted Walmart Mexico for profiting off of unpaid child labor.
Walmart Mexico was already heavily in the news as of late, because of the reported involvement of its top leadership in an ongoing bribery and corruption scandal in that country.
"They are using children to do some of the worst and most back-breaking work in their stores," Orozco stated. "And it actually amounts not just to child labor, but slave labor, because they're not paid; they have to exist on tips.
"The same company that uses child labor in our country robs workers of their overtime wages in the U.S. So we must act together, in solidarity, to make sure they don't continue to get away with this."
The department store giant recently opened several stores in the Chicago area, and Moises Zavala, lead organizer for the Chicago UFCW - also present at the Haymarket rally - spoke with the People's World about his union's focus on the retailer:
"We spend so much time organizing there and warning people about them," he remarked, "because, as the largest retailer, they are the number one threat to all union wages and non-union wages, hours, benefits, and job security.
"They are leading a big race to the bottom in terms of living standards for everyone."
He noted that as soon as Walmart opens a new store in a town, studies have shown that small businesses shut down there, workers get laid off, and average wages and work hours in the community begin to drop.
James Thindwa, a labor activist here who chaired the Haymarket rally on Tuesday, also blasted Walmart. He added that many large corporations, nationally, have recently pulled out of ALEC, a right-wing organization that churns out legislation pushed by Republicans.
The legislation includes prejudicial gun laws and voter suppression tactics. And, moreover, he said, of those corporations that withdrew from ALEC, Walmart was not one.
"Walmart has decided to remain with this organization," Thindwa concluded, "showing us all where they really stand."
Photo: Moises Zavala (left) and Ronald Powell. Blake Deppe/PW & Flickr