Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Truth-Stranger Than Fiction


You can't make up stuff this absurd-a union hires people to picket Wal-Mart with the complaint of low wages and unaffordable heath insurance. Picketers are paid $6/hour and receive no benefits. Then when they get blisters on their feet, they go into the store they are picketing and buy poltices from the pharmacy. Here's the story from Las Vegas-

The strange business of protesting jobs that may be better than yours

By Stacy J. Willis

The shade from the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market sign is minimal around noon; still, six picketers squeeze their thermoses and Dasani bottles onto the dirt below, trying to keep their water cool. They're walking five-hour shifts on this corner at Stephanie Street and American Pacific Drive in Henderson—anti-Wal-Mart signs propped lazily on their shoulders, deep suntans on their faces and arms—with two 15-minute breaks to run across the street and use the washroom at a gas station.

Periodically one of them will sit down in a slightly larger slice of shade under a giant electricity pole in the intersection. Four lanes of traffic rush by, some drivers honk in support, more than once someone has yelled, "assholes!" but mostly, they're ignored.

They're not union members; they're temp workers employed through Allied Forces/Labor Express by the union—United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). They're making $6 an hour, with no benefits; it's 104 F, and they're protesting the working conditions inside the new Wal-Mart grocery store.

"It don't make no sense, does it?" says James Greer, the line foreman and the only one who pulls down $8 an hour, as he ambles down the sidewalk, picket sign on shoulder, sweaty hat over sweaty gray hair, spitting sunflower seeds. "We're sacrificing for the people who work in there, and they don't even know it."

The union accuses Wal-Mart of dragging down wages and working conditions for other grocery-store workers across the nation. "Whether you work or shop at Wal-Mart, the giant retailer's employment practices affect your wages. Wal-Mart leads the race to the bottom in wages and health-care," says the UFCW's website. "As the largest corporation in the world, Wal-Mart has a responsibility to the people who built it. Wal-Mart jobs offer low pay, inadequate and unaffordable healthcare, and off the clock work."

But standing with a union-supplied sign on his shoulder that reads, Don't Shop WalMart: Below Area Standards, picketer and former Wal-Mart employee Sal Rivera says about the notorious working conditions of his former big-box employer: "I can't complain. It wasn't bad. They started paying me at $6.75, and after three months I was already getting $7, then I got Employee of the Month, and by the time I left (in less than one year), I was making $8.63 an hour." Rivera worked in maintenance and quit four years ago for personal reasons, he says. He would consider reapplying.

Rivera is one of few picketers here who have ever worked for Wal-Mart—it's strictly coincidental that he was once in their employ. Most of the picketers were just looking for work through the temp agency.

While Rivera's words for Wal-Mart seem less than harsh, he does add, "I did not want to get insurance from them because it was too expensive."

That, says UCFW organizer Bill Hornbrook, who drove workers to the site one morning last week, is one of the reasons the union wants these protestors here.

"Wal-Mart has no benefits at an affordable rate. The (Wal-Mart) workers can't afford the insurance with the wage they're making. We'd like to see them improve their working conditions," Hornbrook said. "The Neighborhood Markets are the same as a supermarket like Albertson's or Safeway. Some supermarkets start (pay) at $7 an hour, but they do get benefits. These people (employees at Wal-Mart) have to pay for theirs," Hornbrook said. So the UCFW is protesting each of the five new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets in the Vegas area; this one in Henderson opened June 29.

Wal-Mart is infamous for its labor and consumer battles—more than 40 cases alleging the company prevented workers from receiving adequate wage and overtime pay are being considered by courts for class-action status. Additionally, six current and former female employees are pursuing a class-action lawsuit charging that Wal-Mart discriminates against women in its promotion practices.

"We're just trying to help the women that get discriminated against in Wal-Mart," says Greer. "We're out here suffering a lot for these people." He pauses, moves his sign so that it blocks the scorching sun on his leathery face, and considers the working conditions of his colleagues out here working for the union.

"We had one gal out here in her 40s, and she had a heat stroke. I kept making her sit down, I noticed she was stepping (staggering), and I made her sit in the shade," Greer said. She went home sick after her shift and didn't ever return to work.

Another woman, Greer said, had huge blisters on her feet and he took her inside to the Wal-Mart pharmacy. The pharmacist recommended some balm, and Greer bought it for her. Since then, he said, other picketers have purchased the balm for their blisters inside the Wal-Mart they are protesting.

The group has no transportation to go elsewhere—they are dropped off by a union van and picked up later. On weekends, they have to find their own transportation, Greer said.

Inside, the store manager at the Stephanie Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market says he's perfectly happy with his job, and that his insurance is fine.

"The average rate of pay for Nevada Wal-Mart workers is $10.17 an hour. We have a good insurance program, and every associate—even part-timers—are eligible for the 401k," says Mark Dyson. "There's actually different levels of insurance, dental and medical—I have a $500 deductible, but there's no cap on it. Some other companies' plans have a $1 million cap, but here there's no cap. For example, not long ago we had an associate whose husband needed a liver transplant, and that alone was $600,000; but they didn't have to worry about a cap."

For the least comprehensive medical coverage, Wal-Mart workers pay from $17.50 for individual coverage and $70.50 for family coverage biweekly, according to the company website.

"And we are actively promoting and developing women in the workforce," Dyson says. "I think every company has gone through an issue like this, but you should hire the best workers regardless of gender or race or anything else."

In Dyson's market, the air-conditioning is cool, business on this day seems brisk, and the employees seem not so miserable; two checkers chat it up as they ring up customers.

This is not lost on the picketers outside.

Rivera removes his watch to show the dark tan his arm has gotten working in the sun; he talks about how he takes three buses to get to this work site on weekends; it takes two hours to get there and two hours to get home—a nine-hour day including that transportation for a gross pay of $35.

"I asked him (union organizer Hornbrook), I said, 'How come we're working here for $6 an hour? I need you to help us find a better job. I want information on the union,'" Rivera said.

He was told, he says, to secure his own job with a grocery store, and then the union would help him to be sure the store paid him appropriate wages.

"This is an informational picket line only," Hornbrook said. "We're paying these people. They were out of work before (joining their picket lines). This is an in-between-jobs stop. Picketing isn't a career. But we did hire one of the picketers, she's now working for us for $11 an hour (as a driver) and we pay for gasoline."

The UFCW's website concludes, "Every person working hard for a living earns the right to a decent wage, affordable health care and a voice on the job. But Wal-Mart's greed provides other companies a license to chip away at the rights of working America, influencing everything from wages to working conditions."

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