If 2011 was the year the labor movement found its voice again in Wisconsin, then 2012 might be the year for Illinois workers to be heard. With the Chicago teachers strike a victory for teachers and students, workers at Walmart are now taking a stand against low pay and lack of benefits. Following a strike that started in Los Angeles last week, workers in eleven major metropolitan areas, including Chicago, have stepped off the job in protest of the company’s policy of silencing workers who speak out against low pay and lack of benefits. While the strike’s numbers are small when compared to the 1.4 million who work at Walmart worldwide, they are significant: none of the store’s retail workers had ever gone on a planned strike before in the company’s sixty year history. Strikers have organized their efforts through OUR Walmart, a United Food and Commercial Workers-backed union, to take on the company’s longstanding policy of bullying or firing workers that seek to join labor groups.
In parallel with the retail workers’ strike, Walmart’s warehouse workers in Illinois have been on strike for the last 21 days, culminating in a historic victory for the group just yesterday. An article published by Warehouse Workers for Justice states that the terms of the victory allow for an end to the retailer’s illegal retaliation against striking workers, awarding them full back-pay for hours on strike and the ability to continue the fight while on the clock. On October 1, with the help of clergy, community, and labor leaders, strikers at the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, IL, succeeded in shutting down the company’s largest distribution center in North America. Last Friday, the company received a letter signed by over 100,000 supporters demanding safer working conditions, fair pay for hours worked, and an end to discrimination. The fight is still not over, but the warehouse strikers have shown through their tenacity that their demands will be fairly and justly heard.
Both instances of these workers’ actions against Walmart show just how important the body is when it comes to being heard. Though the company has long been anti-union in its administrative practices—occasionally closing down stores that choose to organize—workers are now using the sheer force of the physical absence to get their voices heard. In this case, “Body Wisdom” is the knowledge of one’s integrity and importance as a worker in a larger system. It’s about knowing the economic and health boundaries of any given work environment, and then knowing when one’s body deserves something better. Yes, it is a labor system that employees must work for, but it is also a system that must work for its employees. If not, then the striking body’s absence is perhaps its greatest critical presence.
Today on the Front Porch, we’re reading about a similar struggle against anti-union harassment. “Twenty-Four Hours,” the Spring 2005 issue of the Journal of Ordinary Thought, asked NWA writers to engage with issues concerning work and labor. In his introduction to the issue, writer and USWA Local 1010 Union Hall base-rate chairmen Joe Gutierrez’s says the stories “read like parables and are literary road maps to and from those lessons and desire of working people.” One such road map leads JOT contributor Teresa Morales from 25 years of punching the clock without a voice to learning about the importance of taking a stand. A long-time worker at the Azteca factory, Teresa was involved alongside her husband in a union struggle that led to a strike in 2004. The following is an excerpt from her story, shared as an oral testimony:
I was only eighteen when I started work at the Azteca factory, and now I’ve worked here for 25 years. I work on the line. I gather up the tortillas. I package the tortillas. On the one hand it’s very easy. You see the tortillas coming out and you say, “Oh, this is easy.” But after you’re there for eight hours, it’s really not so easy. I use these fingers, the same way, like this, all day. My hands hurt here and here, and my shoulders and arms. Everybody has pains like this.
There were a lot of problems that made us want to go on strike last year. We asked for a contract, we asked for insurance, we asked for a salary—things that they didn’t want to give us. The owner wanted to pressure us to vote No Union. He said, “If you vote no unions, I’ll give you a raise.” But we talked about it in the parking lot after our shifts: “What happened? Did you sign up? Will you vote for or against the union?” The owner said to us, “those who vote pro-union won’t have a job.” But we were united and strong, even though he was threatening us.
We wouldn’t let ourselves be treated badly because we knew that we were right. We learned how to respond to the foremen, because if we didn’t know how to talk back to them, they’d make us cry! I voted for the union. I wanted the union, and I didn’t feel lost. I thought that with the union, we’d have power. We’re still going to have a good contract, better than we had before, but our union isn’t going to win unless we help it. The workers have to keep up their faith and confidence, and stick together.