Wake Up Wal-Mart activists think globally, act locally

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Changing the world’s largest retailer is a tall order. Like any movement, though, it begins at the grassroots level. As the “Change Wal-Mart, Change America” tour builds momentum nationally, local Wake Up Wal-Mart activists continue to do their part, recruiting supporters and reaching out to employees at Wal-Mart stores throughout the Twin Cities area.

But while supporters have been easy to come by, according to local Wake Up Wal-Mart coordinators, curious employees – so far – have not.

The campaign has signed up well over 10,000 supporters in the Twin Cities, including 107 volunteer “store leaders,” who have pledged to spearhead actions at specific Wal-Mart locations. Since the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign began in April 2005, public actions have involved talking to customers outside of stores and, more recently, distributing literature to employees inside.

The literature – usually a card – describes Wal-Mart’s policies and how they affect employees, and it includes resources workers can access for support from the Wal-Mart Workers Association. The goal of distributing the cards is to build a base of dissatisfied Wal-Mart employees, but the results have been mixed.

“That’s one of the biggest things we need to do, to get people not only to take the card, but to go home and make a phone call and sign up and find out what’s going on,” said Jenny Shegos, an organizer with UFCW Local 789 and one of the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign’s local coordinators. “It’s also one of the hardest things to do to.”

Wal-Mart’s management makes Shegos’ job difficult by restricting access to its employees, by overwhelming them with an anti-union message and by threatening their job security.

Typical trip to the store
When Wake Up Wal-Mart activists enter a store with literature, Shegos said, they “plan on getting kicked out after 20 minutes, at the most,” and after learning that managers began collecting cards after activists’ visits, they now hand out two cards to each worker.

“Wal-Mart has prepped each of their stores and their management about us,” Shegos said. “They know what the cards look like. They’re getting more savvy about it in some stores.”

But managers aren’t the only ones Wal-Mart has warned about its critics. Associates, too, get an unhealthy dose of the company’s anti-union rhetoric, Shegos said.

“There are some people that hate us when we go in, workers that are really skeptical,” she said. “It seems like it’d be a really benign thing, talking to them about better wages and health care, and for some it is. But for some it’s a mixture of anger and fear, which is interesting.

“When we go into the stores, we’re not there as union folks, we’re there as community members. But no matter how many times we tell management we’re not talking about unions, they keep saying, ‘Union, union, union!’ And workers have had it drilled into their heads that unions are terrible.”

The risk of speaking out
More, Wal-Mart workers know what associating with organized labor could mean for their futures.

“They’ve been told if you even get caught talking about unions, you’re out of here,” Shegos said. “There’s a lot of fear; there’s a lot of control from management.”

Still, not every Wal-Mart associate is afraid to speak out. Dana Rezaie, who works at the company’s Fridley location, spoke briefly at the Aug. 15 Wake Up Wal-Mart event in South St. Paul.

“I’ve become quite an outcast at Wal-Mart,” Rezaie told the group of 100 supporters, who responded with a standing ovation.

For Shegos, seeing just one Wal-Mart employee come forward made all of her work on the campaign – both the successes and the setbacks – worthwhile.

“Dana is setting an example for her co-workers at Wal-Mart,” Shegos said. “Even though they’re afraid and won’t physically back her up, they feel the same way she does.”

Wal-Mart workers and their supporters can access the workers association web site at www.walmartwork.org.

Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org

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