Walmart’s firings lead lawmaker to author worker protection bill

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Walmart’s reversion to its normal widespread labor law-breaking – firing workers who led walkouts against it last fall and this spring – has prompted Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., to introduce legislation to protect the workers.

Though his legislation is not expected to go anywhere in the tea party-run GOP-controlled House, Grayson used HR2311, the “Worker Anti-Retaliation Act,” to spotlight the retail monster’s continual repression of its low-paid no-benefits workers.

The legislation promptly drew support from Our Walmart, the association of Walmart workers who have been campaigning, on their own, for change by the 1.4-million worker monster. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) which for years tried to unionize Walmart, only to be thwarted by hundreds of instances of company labor law breaking and worker harassment and intimidation, also supports the bill.

Grayson introduced his legislation after he learned Walmart fired his constituent, Vanessa Ferriera, an 8-year cake decorator at the St. Cloud, Fla., store in June in retaliation for speaking up, last year, against low pay and lousy working conditions.

Ferriera, who earned $11.90 an hour in the post, conducted a one-woman walkout last November. It was part of a nationwide series of protests demanding the pay and benefits she needed to support her family, Grayson said. She also joined Our Walmart.

“Walmart does not want you to say anything,” Ferreira told interviewers. “They don’t want you to ask questions. They want you to sit there and obey. When you start asking questions, they start retaliating.”

Walmart responded by writing Ferriera up for minor infractions, imposing other discipline and ultimately firing her for taking “extended breaks” from her job. It never documented its charge. It also fired other protest leaders, including 12 of the leaders of the nationwide protest/strike that led to a workers’ march on the Walmart shareholders’ meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. The firings break labor law.

Grayson said his bill would ban such retaliatory firings, and give the workers the right to back pay, damages and other civil penalties. Current labor law, the National Labor Relations Act, gives workers very little. If they ultimately win their case after firms can drag appeals through the NLRB and the courts, they get net back pay and no damages. Companies must post notices promising not to break the law again, but there is no other enforcement action.

“Walmart is our nation’s largest employer, and it is time to put an end to its retaliatory actions against workers who are merely asking for better working conditions and a livable wage,” Grayson said. “Vanessa and Lisa (Lopez) should be commended for their commitment to a better life for the millions of Walmart employees across the country-but they have suffered retaliation for their efforts instead. This legislation will protect people like them.”

Lopez, another Walmart worker who lives in Grayson’s district, was one of the leaders of the mass protest that descended on Fayetteville. She was fired in the last week of June, the congressman said.

“My bill will protect workers from retaliation by their employers, and provide victims of retaliatory actions with legal relief,” Grayson added. Walmart workers “have little control over their working conditions. They are not unionized, and Walmart used every trick in the book to prevent them from protesting dismal working conditions and unfair treatment…It’s time to put an end to Walmart’s abhorrent mistreatment of its employees-and let workers know their right to organize and protest will be protected.”

“Walmart is reinventing labor retaliation in today’s economy, the latest chapter in the retail giant’s appalling record on workers’ rights,” UFCW President Joe Hansen added in a statement. “Grayson’s bill would protect workers from targeting and send a message to all employers that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Grayson isn’t the sole lawmaker setting his sights on Walmart. By an 8-5 vote on June 26, the Washington, D.C. City Council gave preliminary approval to an ordinance to set living wage standards for “big box” stores that either operate or want to set up shop in the nation’s capital. A final vote is scheduled for July 10.

The D.C. ordinance, which is strongly supported by unions, Our Walmart and community groups, would order retailers with at least $1 billion in annual corporate revenue nationwide and who operate, or plan to operate, stores of 75,000 square feet or more, to pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour. D.C.’s minimum wage is $8.25 hourly.

Walmart is the ordinance’s prime target. It plans to open six stores in D.C., most of them in poor areas. Walmart claims the D.C. ordinance, similar to living wage laws other cities imposed on the monster retailer, would endanger construction and operation of three of those D.C. stores. It also claims its stores would provide jobs in areas of high unemployment. Studies show Walmart costs more jobs than it creates.

The living wage bill is leading unions and their allies to lobby D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to sign it. One of the three “endangered” stores would be in his lower-income home ward. Gray faces a rocky road to re-election, should he seek a second term next year. Gray was elected in 2010 with labor support. If he vetoes the living wage bill, he could lose that support. Backers would need nine council votes to override a veto.

Photo: Pico Rivera Associates standing with Sergio who was unjustly fired.Organization United For Respect Facebook page.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.