Walmart response to workers’ rights? “Evacuate!”
By Ben Bull, UMass SLAP
On July 31st, fifty students from across the country loaded onto a bus in Madison, Wisconsin and departed for a nearby Walmart to protest the illegal firing of Walmart Associates. For over a year, Walmart Associates have been organizing under the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or better known as OUR Walmart. OUR Walmart is a unique worker organization that challenges our nation’s largest retailer to change its business practices and policies that are driving down standards for working families and communities. The Student Labor Action Project has been supporting OUR Walmart and Walmart workers through the Change Walmart, Change America campaign in conjunction with Jobs with Justice. Within the last year four Associates have been fired illegally for questioning Walmart’s labor practices and organizing with OUR Walmart. Such injustice demanded action.
Students had assembled in Madison for USSA’s 65th Annual National Student Congress and for several days had been crafting an action plan for the student movement. During the plenary session, SLAP students presented a resolution for USSA to endorse the Change Walmart, Change America campaign. The resolutions passed, and a call went out for students to put their words into action and stand up for the fired Walmart Associates. The next day, students met to fight back against Walmart. For some, this would be their first direct action ever while others were seasoned veterans.
As the bus rolled on down the highway, a growing excitement could be felt amongst the students. After pulling into the Walmart parking lot, the students deboarded in groups of ten, each carrying a stress ball to give to an Associate or customer with the website to OUR Walmart. As the students entered the Walmart, they casually strolled through aisles pretending to look at merchandise, anxiously awaiting the signal to begin the action.
Out of the silence a sharp whistle pierced the air and the cry of “Mic Check!” rang out. In unison, the students stepped out of the aisles, stood in front of the check out lanes, and repeated the words of Annie Mombourquette, a junior from UMass Amherst who led the Mic-Check. The students called upon Walmart to end unjust firings and rehire those Associates who had been illegally fired for organizing. When the Mic-Check ended, a second whistle rang out alerting the students to quickly distribute the stress balls.
By this point however, Walmart management was on the scene. Caught completely off guard by the action, a group of five Walmart managers could be seen sprinting down the aisles to try and stop the students. However, they were too late; the action had been accomplished. As the students began to make their way to the exit, a voice came over the store intercom and said, “All Customers, please evacuate the store. All Associates, please report to the jewelry department.” The store had been shut down. As the students hustled back to the bus, a great cheer rose up and a chorus of “Solidarity Forever” broke out.
The complete success of the action and the added bonus of shutting the store down brought tremendous pride to the students, and they returned to Congress energized and ready to continue the fight to make change at Walmart. The action highlighted the importance of students and workers coming together to create a more socially just society. In the movement for social and economic justice, the student movement and the labor movement must not stand as separate silos. Instead, they must know their struggle is woven tightly into the struggle of the other. This is the foundational belief of the Student Labor Action Project. Students walked away from the action prepared to continue the fight in their own communities and campuses.