Dominic Ware is a former Walmart worker in the Bay Area and an activist in OUR Walmart, a campaign led by Walmart "associates" and backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to demand a living wage, better benefits, and an end to management harassment and disrespect on the job.
Last year, OUR Walmart organized some of the first strikes ever inside Walmart stores, including a day of walkouts and demonstrations on Black Friday, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. The giant retailer is nonunion–Walmart has closed down departments and even whole stores in response to the threat of unionization–but employees working in OUR Walmart have some protections under federal labor law by striking over unfair labor practices (ULP), such as management retaliation, harassment and unsafe conditions.
OUR Walmart has coupled actions at local stores with nationally sponsored protest initiatives that often culminate at Walmart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. For example, earlier this year, Walmart workers who walked off the job were joined by supporters in the Ride for Respect, modeled on the famous Freedom Rides in 1961 by civil rights movement activists determined to desegregate instate bus travel.
Earlier this year, after he participated in a strike call and the Ride for Respect to Bentonville, Dominic was fired from the Walmart in San Leandro, Calif. But he explained in an interview with Stephanie Schwartz and David Whitehouse, Dominic is carrying on the OUR Walmart struggle and the fight for justice for all low-wage workers.
How did you get involved with the OUR Walmart campaign?
I decided to get involved with OUR Walmart because, being a working person and a part-time student, I felt I wasn't being respected on the job I dedicated my life to, and that it was actually holding me back from fulfilling my duties as a student. I had other job opportunities, but I was dedicated to being loyal to Walmart because I believed in the Walmart dream. I believed in being able to work hard and move up. I believed that Walmart would take of their associates.
That's what I thought the first couple of months, but after working there and getting my hours cut, I got a firsthand look at what Walmart is really like, from the point of view of 10- or 12- or 15-year associates. They pretty much dread coming in to work every day. That's when it started to be that way for me as well–going in to work and being disrespected on a day-to-day basis.
One example of being disrespected is Walmart's 15-foot rule, which means that every single person who comes within that 15-foot sphere, you have to acknowledge them, say hello and ask if they need any help. It shocked me that the hourly associates have to do that, but the salaried associates will walk past even their own employees and not even acknowledge them being there.
I would come to work and try to be polite as possible, and on a daily basis, management would just walk past me, you know? They can't be friendly to me, they can't even say hello when they've obviously seen me–and then five minutes later, they call me on the intercom to come help with a carryout! It just bothered me.
I tried to handle the situation myself. I talked with my store manager and asked her if Walmart had any type of hospitality training or did any training at all on how to interact with their employees. She was shocked that I said that. I was promised that things would change, but nothing changed–as a matter of fact, she started doing the same thing herself.
So I was pretty much through with Walmart–the bubble was busted. I was able to see Walmart for the ugly corporation that it is. I was through.
A few weeks after I talked to my store manager, I met an organizer with Organization United For Respect at Walmart [OUR Walmart], and I've been a proud, active, striking member since. I'm going on my second anniversary, and just being in the organization has been the best time of my life. I've learned so much, and I've just been so proactive in my store and in Walmart's business overall.
Like I said, my main issue was respect. Poverty wages are already a reason to stand up and strike, but I was hoping to become an assistant manager one day. But after a year, I didn't move up at all. The only thing I got after a year of hard work was a $.40-an-hour raise. I knew that it wasn't just happening to me–it's happening to people all over this beautiful country.
What wage did you start out at?
I was part time at $8.25 an hour. And all I got after a year of hard work was $.40 an hour–that's all I'm worth after my dedication, missing holidays, missing family time, stressing myself out.
Just knowing that this is happening to people across this nation is what keeps me going in the fight. I've been on strikes and picket lines at the stores and at protests the home office, doing everything that I can. We're letting the associates know that we have a voice and we have the power, but we must educate each other and support each other if we want to change anything at Walmart. That's the main message of this organization I'm proud to be a part of.
Can you tell us about the first walkout you were involved in, when you went to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to protest?
It was the first time I had a chance to meet with brothers and sisters from Hawaii, Texas, Miami and all over, and stand in front of Walmart's home office and demand that they respect us as workers. It just enriched my soul, you know? I was meeting people who felt the same way and were going through the same things, so many miles away from where I called home.
We remixed the Michael Jackson song: "All I wanna say is that / They don't really care about us." We did a flash mob in the first Walmart store, and then we went to the home office, where we did a mic check. Anybody who's been involved with a mic-check knows how amplified the crowd gets and the connection when everyone who's speaking and getting our voices heard, all at the same time.
Management was shaken. They didn't know what to do. Until I wore this green [the color of the OUR Walmart campaign's T-shirts and other materials], I never saw a look of fear on the face of a salaried worker for Walmart. I've been on a couple of strikes since then, and I just love it. If I was working at Walmart, I'd be doing a ULP strike today.
Tell us about why you're not working at Walmart now.
It's because of the last ULP strike I was a part of earlier this year, which was the longest Walmart has ever seen.
A group of associates from all over the country–180 in total, I think, with family and community supporters–went on the Ride for Respect 2013. Those of you who are familiar with our history and all of the fights we've been a part of know about the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. What we did was follow that blueprint and that spirit, and duplicated it for modern times. I wish I could share with everybody that experience so people could really feel how big it was, and how detrimental it was to Walmart's name.
But as proof of that, after we came back, that's when they started firing people. I was one of the first 20 associates fired, just for speaking up for respect and a living wage.
I believe $12 an hour is a reasonable wage, and even that is really close to the poverty line. Right now, an associate starting out, who is working 40 hours a week all year, is making about $15,000. No one can survive on that at all. We're asking for a few more pennies to help us survive and get by while not being on government assistance and not relying on other people or handouts to make it through the week–I don't think we're asking for too much.
But that's pretty much that's what me and 20 other OUR Walmart members got fired for.
What will be taking place on Black Friday this year?
That's the big event of the year. We're going to have a day for the people. It's not going to just be about Walmart workers, but the Walmart victims–people who don't even know they're being affected by this ugly corporation and its mistreatment of workers. That's people like fast-food workers, the warehouse workers who work for Walmart, even down to the ports–all down the line.
Walmart has its hands in so many things that are wrong with this country. On Black Friday this year, we're going to shine a light and let our community know that we need Walmart to uphold its responsibility to this country and its people, and to change for all of us. I'm just glad to be a part of it. To be there and show support for each other is going to be a real sight to see.
We're in a struggle right now. Throughout history, there have been many struggles. People remember the struggle for women, and people remember the struggle against racism by African Americans. Right now, we're in the class struggle of our lives. I really advise that if you're anywhere from the shrinking middle class on down, you need to get activated and join this fight.
Do this year's protests look like they're going to be bigger than last year's?
Hey, last Black Friday was bigger than what I expected. I didn't expect there to be 700 people going out on strike. The message is bigger this year than last year, and it's going to keep getting bigger, because these issues are getting uglier. Walmart's not getting any better. It's a matter of time before everyone's activated and truly understands the effects that Walmart is having on this country.
Many of the people reading this article will be people outside of Walmart, who will show up on Black Friday and protest in solidarity. What kind of organizing or feelings are taking place inside the stores?
Inside the stores, it's holiday time. People are probably getting 30 or 40 hours a week if they have seniority. Anybody who's been to one of our actions knows that workers will be having the worst day while at work, but they'll hear the action and the support of the community members outside, and be able to come out and see people cheering them on.
It really touches their hearts and gives them pride. A lot of people don't have pride in what they do at Walmart. If you understand that there are people who support you and understand what you're going through and who are fighting to get you more respect, better pay and more health benefits, it gives you a sense of pride.
What can people do if they want to get involved in supporting people like you who are working at Walmart, or who have been fired for organizing?
If you want to get plugged in and find out what's going on, go to ForRespect.org. For something more specific about the Black Friday protests, we have a website called BlackFridayProtests.org. And for those of you in the Bay Area, you can go to my personal Facebook [search for Dominic Ware] and my Twitter is @hellaourwalmart–yes, "hella," because this is the Bay Area.
In the Bay Area, the airport workers at Oakland have some things going on–some awesome actions that we're teaming up with. And fast-food and retail workers. We've combined our struggles, and we're going to be doing more in December. Then there are port workers who have some issues, and the BART workers. We support them and are trying to help them get the win they deserve.
After Black Friday, what's your vision for what's going to happen with OUR Walmart and all the people who are organizing?
My vision is that this little downtime that everybody is going to be having in December isn't really downtime. It's a setting-up time. We're going to be combining more of our fights and finding common ground with each other, because that's what it's going to take. We need to stop bickering over little issues and focus on the big issues at hand. So my vision is for us to find more synchronicity with each other's fights, and we join each other and back each other more.
I'm a history geek. My favorite subject in school was history, not because I didn't like the other subjects, but because I like what's real. I like to see what has worked and what hasn't, and history shows us that.
If you go back to when workers were winning and when our country was doing better, you'll see it was because workers were able to buy homes and the price of living wasn't so far from much than minimum wage. So that's what's going on in the Bay Area, and I hope it starts a domino effect that goes all over, so we can win this beautiful country back for the people.
Transcription by Jason Netek. FIrst published at SocialistWorker.org.