AMERICAN trade unions are claiming that the giant Walmart company is retaliating against its workers for the leading role they have played in the campaign for a $15 an hour legal minimum pay rate.
This campaign against poverty level pay has swept the country drawing mass support from low paid workers from across the USA and the world, its highest point yet being the nationwide strikes and protests on Wednesday 15th April that brought over 60,000 workers in 230 US cities coming out demanding a living wage increase.
The response of Walmart – the world’s largest company and biggest employer in the world with an estimated 2.2 million employees and owner of Asda in the UK – was, according to workers and their union, to announce the unexpected closure of five of its US stores.
According to the company, these closures of stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and California were because of ‘severe plumbing problems’ that would take many months to put right.
In the meantime, as a result of these closures 2,200 workers are out of a job with only two months pay which the company is forced to pay under federal law regarding layoff notices.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has filed an injunction with the National Labour Relations Board on behalf of Walmart workers affected by the closure, seeking to stop workers from losing their jobs.
It wants the NLRB to force Walmart to rehire all of the terminated workers.
The injunction was sought by the union on behalf of the OUR Walmart campaign – the organisation set up by Walmart workers to fight for the $15 demand.
OUR Walmart are insisting that the company’s claim of plumbing problems is an excuse to punish workers for fighting for higher pay, pointing out that workers at one of the stores being closed in Pico Rivera, California, led one of the first ‘Black Friday’ protests over pay back in 2012.
Workers at the store were laid off without guarantee of placement at nearby Walmart locations, or even of their old jobs upon the store’s reopening.
As to their ‘plumbing’ problems, according to the city’s public works director, Walmart has yet to request any permits for plumbing work.
These sudden closures nationwide have left hundreds of workers wondering where they’ll get their next paycheck.
An OUR Walmart member who has works at the store for 8 years, Venanzi Luna, said of the closure: ‘This is a new low, even for Walmart. We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Walmart so they’re targeting us. It’s unfortunate that Walmart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.’
In their complaint to the NLRB, the union has said that Walmart has closed the Pico Rivera store because it has been a centre of workers activism and that it has closed the other four as a cover for this victimisation.
In a sign that workers are not going to passively accept this blatant act of revenge and intimidation, over 200 Walmart workers and supporters rallied outside the Pico Rivera store on Monday, some carrying signs reading ‘Hey Wal-Mart the plumbing excuse stinks’.
Walmart, which makes an estimated annual profit of $16 billion, has a long history of anti-trade unionism and of relying on low pay and part-time employment to keep their profits at this eye-watering level.
It is also not the first time that the company has been accused of retaliating against workers over their attempts to join a union and using store closure as a weapon.
In 2014, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Walmart violated local labour laws when it closed down in Quebec after it had become one of the first Walmart stores in the country to unionise.
Recently in the face of the mass campaign against low pay in February, Walmart increased its minimum hourly wage to $9 an hour – well below the rate demanded and well below any concept of a living wage and does not include regularity of work.
A recent study by the University of California has exposed the extent to which low-paid workers at major corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s are reliant on public aid from both state and federal governments to supplement their wages.
The study found that what are in effect subsidies to these companies paid out of taxes amounts to a staggering $153 billion a year – an amount equal to the entire annual budget of the US Department of Agriculture.
Walmart, of course, does not restrict itself to exploiting the American working class, as a massive global company it is up to its neck in the exploitation of workers throughout the world to reap the massive profits for its owners and shareholders.
Not surprisingly then, Walmart has been closely involved in the secret negotiations to bring in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which aims to create a ‘free trade’ agreement that would give companies like Walmart complete dominance over the laws of the 12 countries involved, conferring on them unrestricted rights to screw as much profit as possible.
While the public and politicians are not allowed to participate in these negotiations, or even witness the goings on at the meetings involved, multi-national companies like Walmart are actually involved in the drafting of the agreement.
This agreement is being ‘fast-tracked’ by the Obama administration through the Senate who will not be allowed to make any amendments to it and who have not even seen it yet.
This proposed TPP agreement has caused a huge rift between the Democratic leadership and the American trade union movement who correctly see it as a massive attack on the jobs and conditions of US workers.
In an unprecedented move the head of the US union federation, AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka has vowed that they will stop the fast-track bill designed to implement TPP.
In an interview, Trumka expanded on the unions’ opposition to the deal, explaining that it ignores the issue of countries’ ability to manipulate their currencies, that is devalue in order to lower the costs of exports.
Trumka explains that this means that even if TPP provided more jobs in the US these ‘could be wiped out the next day by a country manipulating its currency, to negate all this’.
He goes on that the AFL-CIO opposes TPP because of its investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) secret tribunals that allow companies to sue countries for actions or laws that harm their profits, or potential profits.
As for the claim that TPP will create jobs in the US, Trumka makes it clear that it ‘fails to help create jobs here because it doesn’t have strong rules of origin’.
In other words, Trumka fears that companies from countries outside the TPP agreement (he identifies China as the main threat) could put factories or ship raw materials to a TPP country for assembly and thus avail themselves of preferential access to US markets without having to be a member of TPP itself.
Trumka concluded: ‘And the last thing is transparency. This is an agreement that’s going to cover 40 percent of the world’s GDP. It’s going to be NAFTA and (the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement) on steroids. And yet they want to be able to do it in secret, plunk it down, and have Congress vote up or down with no amendments.’
From this interview it is clear that the trade union leadership opposes TPP from narrow nationalistic grounds, that it is an attack on US workers’ jobs, he makes it clear that they have fully supported other so called free trade agreements.
The ALF-CIO have been forced by the mass movement of workers in the US, who have seen their wages and conditions systematically destroyed to provide the huge profits of companies like Walmart, to come out in trenchant opposition to TPP and in opposition to the leadership of the Democratic party, the party which the union bureaucracy has historically bound the working class movement to.
But the mass movement of US workers has gone beyond narrow nationalist ‘protectionism’ – the very international nature of capitalism means that it has recognised that the struggle against rapacious corporations and industries demands the unity of the working class across the world to fight exploitation.
It has created the conditions for the working class in America to force the unions to break with the bourgeois Democratic party and form an independent Labour Party that will fight for socialist policies including the demand that all workers are paid a living wage.
Such a determined struggle will open the way for mobilising the entire working class into a struggle against capitalism and winning a permanent victory through the expropriation of the bosses and bankers through the victory of the socialist revolution.
Central to this historic fight must be the building of a section of the International Committee of the Fourth International in America to fight for this perspective.