Montressia Williams’ Walmart co-workers think she is on vacation, but her trip to New York is anything but.
The trip, paid for by labour organisers, is a part of the national protests to demand better wages, schedules and treatment for low-wage workers at retailers like Walmart and McDonald’s. Thursday’s protests, which started with a march on McDonald’s and ended in front of Alice Walton’s New York condo, were organised by groups like Our Walmart, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, New York United and Retail Action Project.
While most of the signs asked for $15 hourly wages, there were other issues weighing on Williams’s mind – like healthcare and her spotty schedule.
“Because I am part-time right now, they are taking away my health benefits. I already don’t get dental and now I am not going to have health insurance,” she said, concerned about what this would mean come January and whether loss of insurance would translate into a penalty under the Affordable Care Act. “I don’t even know if I am eligible for Obamacare or anything.”
At 34, she has been with Walmart for 14 years now. Even though she earns $13.71 an hour, more than most Walmart workers, she still struggles to make ends meet.
“They cut my hours really bad. I get a 50-cent raise every single year. I earn that when I come in with a good attitude,” she explained. Raising her hands to demonstrate a scale, she continued: “Every time Walmart gives me a 50-cent raise on this hand, on the other hand they take it away a different way. They are leaving me to have a paycheck that is $300 to $400 every two weeks.”
“At Walmart, it doesn’t take too long to advance beyond the minimum-wage level,” Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for Walmart, told the New York Times. Higher wages, however, mean little if one’s hours are reduced or if they come with reduced benefits.
The goal of the march was to bring attention to the “poverty wages that low-wage workers all around the country have to endure at the hands of corporations that make billions of dollars”, says Kercena Dozier, a 34-year-old community organiser for New York United.
As poor Americans continue to struggle during the sluggish recovery, protesters have taken to carrying out acts of civil disobedience like blocking streets and roads in order to get arrested. These acts, they hope, show that they are willing to do whatever it takes to move the issue forward.
“All of you must have your IDs on you,” an organiser told a group of protesters on Thursday as they prepared to walk off the sidewalk into the middle of a busy New York intersection. Just moments prior, those protesters emptied their pockets, leaving all of their valuables with yet another organiser. The acts of civil disobedience carried out by the protesters have been carefully planned and documented.
As the protesters willing to risk arrest took up their positions at the intersection of East 60th Street and Park Avenue, others continued to chant and wave their signs from the sidewalks. Even as a New York policeman proceeded to put a zip tie around one protester’s hands and lead her to a van, she continued to lead everyone in a chant:
“Whose Walmart?” she yelled.
“Our Walmart!” the crowd yelled back.
‘They are butchering their father’s dreams’
On Wednesday, for the first time in her life, Courtney Moore got on an airplane. The short flight from Ohio to New York was smooth. “No turbulence,” she said, laughing.
For Moore, this trip came with a mission: to remind Alice Walton, the heir to the Walmart fortune, of her father’s vision for the company.
“In my Walmart, in our break room, we have a sign up from Sam Walton that says: ‘The front end cashiers are the first face that the customers see and the last face they see when they leave the store. We are a family.’ We are supposed to be treated like a family,” said Moore. “And I don’t think the Waltons are going to disagree with that, because I took that straight from their father’s mouth. They are butchering their father’s dreams.”
Prior to the protests, Walmart workers at 1,690 stores collected signatures from their co-workers in support of their cause. (Overall, Walmart has 4,322 stores in the US.) It was Moore’s task to deliver the petition to Walton.
“Of course, she didn’t come downstairs,” said the 22-year-old Ohioan. The petition was left with the doorman, who seemed sympathetic to the workers’ cause and promised to personally deliver the papers to Walton.
Retailers, including Walmart, have said that they cannot afford to raise wages as it would eat away at their profits. Just this week Walmart’s new CEO, Doug McMillon, expressed concerns over the company’s sales, saying, “There is no excuse for us not to be doing better.”