Twin Cities Walmart workers launch organizing drive

ST. PAUL (Workday Minnesota) Hodan Hassan would like to have health insurance for herself and her family. Leontez Slaughter worries about safety on the job. Denise Spittler is tired of being told she can quit if she doesn’t like her wages and working conditions. They are just three of thousands of Walmart employees nationwide engaged in a historic campaign to organize the retail giant.

Hassan, Slaughter, Spittler and other Twin Cities Walmart workers talked about their effort – and heard words of support from the community – at a rally June 4 outside the Walmart store in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. It was one of dozens of events held across the country last week.

In addition to Minnesota, organizing is taking place in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Hassan, who has worked at Walmart for six years, earns $9.50 an hour. “I cannot afford the medical insurance” offered by Walmart, she said. “I have children and I cannot afford their medical insurance.”

Slaughter earns $7.60 an hour moving carts and keeping the parking lot clear at the Brooklyn Park Walmart. “We’re out in all kinds of weather,” he said. “We have to worry about cars hitting us. I had my foot run over not too long ago.”

Spittler worked at the Walmart store in Mankato and now is employed at the store in Maple Grove. Having worked at the Boise Cascade plant in International Falls, where she was represented by a union, Spittler is tired of being told workers can do nothing to improve their conditions.

“One of the first things they (Walmart management) do in orientation is they give us a five-minute video on why Walmart does not need a union,” Spittler said. “I was a union member for 16 years. I know what a union can do . . . They tell us, ‘If you don’t like it – leave.’ That’s not how it works – we’re not leaving.”

Unprecedented campaign United Food & Commercial Workers Local 789 coordinated the rally. While the union has held numerous protests at Walmart in recent years, this event was different, Local 789 Director of Organizing Doug Mork said.

“This has been a long-term struggle with Walmart to call on this company to do better by its workers,” he said. Today “hundreds” of Walmart workers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area “have stepped up and signed union cards.”

Workers are encouraged by the election of President Barack Obama and the possibility that Congress will pass the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make it easier for workers to join unions, organizers said.

The campaign has the potential to be massive, as Walmart employs 1.4 million people in the United States and millions more in other countries. None of its U.S. stores is unionized.

Independent analyses show Walmart pays many of its employees poverty-level wages. The company has been cited scores of times for violating labor rights, engaging in gender discrimination and ignoring wage and hour laws.

Speakers at the rally said Walmart often undermines communities by driving smaller, local retailers out of business. They called on Walmart management to respect the workers’ right to organize.

“People should be able to have a say in the processes and the systems that impact their lives,” said Melvin Carter III, the St. Paul City Council member whose ward includes the Midway store.

Other speakers included the Rev. Kevin McDonough, pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church; Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance; and Tom Bakk, Minnesota state senator and a member of the Carpenters Union.