DC-area strike supporters meet swift reaction by Walmart

Management at eight Walmart stores in the DC metropolitan area acted quickly to squash leafleting to support striking workers. Activists from a coalition of local organizations visited Walmart stores in Alexandria, Germantown, Laurel, Bowie, Landover and Catonsville on October 10 to pass out fliers and petitions to customers and employees about the retailer’s alleged efforts to intimidate workers who seek improvements. In some instances, Walmart personnel called police to assist them off the property, although none intervened.

On October 9, several Walmart workers in the DC metro area joined the first strike in the behemoth retailer’s history and walked off the job. Citing attempts to “silence and retaliate against workers for speaking out for improvements on the job,” the Making Change at Walmart campaign of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) conducted a national Day of Action on October 10 to support the strike.

Eleven employees at the Walmart in Laurel, MD went on strike, and eight of them flew to Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Walmart’s corporate office, to join many others in airing their grievances. Foremost among them is the threat of retaliation for doing what they’re doing now–speaking up.

Striking Walmart employee Barbara Elliott

Barbara Elliott is one of the Laurel strikers. She has worked in customer service at Walmart since 2005, in Virginia and New York locations as well as in Maryland. “A lot of people want to speak out but they’re scared to speak out, they’re in fear of their jobs,” she said. “They know that this is the only job that they have to support their families.”

The flier by OUR Walmart passed out at stores on Wednesday also emphasized strikers’ view that Walmart coerces them into keeping complaints to themselves. “The company is trying to silence and intimidate those who speak out through unfair disciplinary actions, cutbacks in hours and even firings,” it said.

Members of various local groups, including DC Jobs with Justice, United Students Against Sweatshops, Ward Four Thrive and Respect DC, visited area stores and conversed with customers while handing out flyers. Walmart management, however, seemed to be on the lookout for strike supporters and had procedure in place to deal with them. One activist reported seeing a manager call in a “code” then rip flyers out of workers’ hands. Police were on site at the Capital Plaza store in Landover Hills, MD before any strike supporters even arrived. In one Alexandria store, a Walmart employee took passed-out flyers for the purpose of tearing them up.

David Richardson, a retired union worker and participant with DC Jobs with Justice, said, “They’re afraid. Everybody is afraid of the boss. It’s really sad that they’re in that position.”

An assistant manager at the Laurel store declined to comment.

In spite of Walmart management’s hostility toward them, organizer Mike Wilson of DC Jobs with Justice described their Walmart visits as successful. “We were able [to have] some really good conversations,” he said.

Walmart is the world’s largest private employer with 1.4 million employees. It’s known for being aggressively anti-union and gone to great lengths to prevent its workforce from organizing, including a hotline for its managers to call. Only a few hundred workers nationwide have dared to walk out in the recent strike.

Barbara Elliott felt she had to be one of them. “I’m here to represent those who are afraid to speak, to get the respect that we need,” she said.

She cited reductions in employer contributions to 401(k) accounts, under-staffing, loss of merit raises, low wages, and a climate of fear in the work environment. Yet she had words of praise for Walmart founder Sam Walton. “It’s not all bad, it’s just that we need back what was took from us, what Sam wanted us to have from the beginning,” she said. “When he passed they just slowly took it from us, and enough is enough.”

The DC-area strikers plan to return to work October 11.

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Evicted But Not Defeated: Occupy thrives outside of camps

Occupy Richmond marches through VCU campus

Occupy Richmond clustered in tents on Kanawha Plaza in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Building of Richmond for a mere two weeks before police moved in to evict them. With nine protestors arrested and the camp bulldozed, the newly formed activist group grappled with its next steps.

Now Occupy Richmond’s website simply states, “We occupy the yard of Raymond Boone.” Above is an embedded map marking the location.

Eviction is not dissolution

The physical space of encampment has important symbolic and practical advantages, which is why many Occupiers are fighting to keep it, take it back, or re-occupy another space. Many cities and towns never established camps yet their numbers are large, and they keep up an active and vocal presence.

The Occupy movement has initially been identified so strongly with the urban encampments of the major cities, where protestors have sometimes clashed with para-militarized police, that the many Occupy camps and active groups of smaller cities in the US have gone unnoticed except in local news.

This omission among the mainstream media has led to underestimating the size and scope of the movement. “Sleepers”–those who sleep at the camps–are but the front line of a legion of Occupiers.

If that weren’t the case, Occupy would be tossed to the winds when authorities successfully ban camps. Instead, groups like Occupy Richmond seem galvanized by eviction and determined to prove their resilience. Others like Occupy Roanoke never pitched tents, but still have managed to occupy their city. And Occupiers are finding other spaces besides city parks to occupy, like highways and foreclosed homes.

Re-grouping

Richmond Free Press publisher and editor Raymond Boone invited Occupy Richmond to come and stay in his yard in the Brookbury neighborhood southwest of town. It’s far from the former downtown site convenient to Virginia Commonwealth University students, next to the Federal Reserve Building, and just down the hill from the Richmond Statehouse and the Virginia State Capitol.

It does have one advantage, however. Boone’s next-door neighbor is Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. The City served Boone with a zoning violation because of the camp.

General Assemblies are held three times a week at the encampment and once a week in town. Without the central location, fewer of Occupy Richmond’s actions have revolved around it. Still, activity persisted through November and may not scale back for the winter.

Maintaining the Occupy presence is finding expression in a diverse mix of protest, education and creativity. There have been educational series, flash mobs, a photo project and a benefit for the homeless. Three Occupy Richmond participants walked 110 miles from Richmond to DC as part of Occupy the Highway. Occupy Richmond recently welcomed the marchers of “Walkupy” on their way to Atlanta from DC. A Statewide Solidarity Rally included a march through downtown, stops at infamous places like the Bank of America building, and a potluck and Human University celebration at Kanawha Plaza.

This week Occupy Richmond occupied the City Council meeting to ask questions about the eviction at Kanawha Plaza and the future of the Boone camp. One city councilwoman introduced an ordinance to exempt Kanawha from restricted park hours and prohibitions on camping. Here’s hoping that Occupy Richmond may re-occupy its original camp.

UPDATE: December 20: Occupy Richmond is packing up the Boone camp. No official statement yet.

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