Holiday shopping season is nearly upon us (or already here, if you’ve seen the inside of a department store recently). It’s the time of year when stores have the rapt attention of eager shoppers hungry for deals. So figure workers at Walmart, it’s also the time of year when they’ll have the best chance to be heard in their fight for a living wage from the nation’s largest retailer, and largest employer.
In the run-up to Black Friday, the veritable U.S. shopping holiday, Walmart workers around the country have been stepping up their actions. On Wednesday, Walmart workers at three Chicago-area stores went on strike to protest their poor wages and the retaliation workers have received for speaking out about them. On Tuesday, 200 workers from Seattle-area Walmart stores protested the same as well. Last Wednesday, workers from six Los Angeles stores staged a two-day strike, culminating in a protest Thursday night outside the company’s Chinatown store with 500 workers, activists, clergy and community members. At that protest, 54 people were arrested after blocking a street in what organizers have called the largest act of civil disobedience in Walmart history. Evelin Cruz was one of those 54 arrested. Cruz and striking Walmart workers are members of OUR Walmart, a union-backed workers group. The 42-year-old mother works at Walmart’s store in Pico Rivera, a working-class suburb southeast of Los Angeles. Cruz started as a cashier, “ten years ago this January,” and today is a department manager for the photo and wireless departments.
She spoke with Colorlines after a shift at work about her job, why she’s risking losing it to speak out, and how she’ll be spending her Thanksgiving this year.
Evelin can you explain why you took part in last week’s action?
The reason we went on strike last week was for Walmart to actually pay the associates a living wage and to stop retaliation against asosciates who speak out. When anyone speaks out regarding any issue they’re having with Walmart, Walmart either writes us up or fires us, illegally. We’re tired of what’s going on in these stores. They’re cutting people’s hours and people can’t survive on 16 hours a week of work, not at minimum wage.
Has anything happened to you for your involvement yet?
Yeah. I’ve been written up for attendance, and they’re counting the days that I’m on strike.
What does getting written up mean for you and your job?
After three write-ups you no longer have a job, so your livelihood is gone.
Given that risk you’re taking, what do you want to use this time to share with people? And why do you still want to speak out?
The reason I want to speak out is because there are a lot of scared people that haven’t opened their eyes to the possibilites of what can happen when we come together to speak up. Walmart’s not only the largest retailer, they set the standards for every other retailer. And that’s why it’s been important for me to take a stand now.
Can I ask you Evelin, how much do you make?
It’s a laughable wage. It’s $13.60 an hour.
What’s your take-home pay then?
Take-home pay is about $780 every two weeks.
And do you have a family?
I have a child, but I am one of the very few lucky ones that is from a two-income household and my son is also older. He’s 20.
What does making $13.60 an hour mean for you?
I started as a cashier at $7.40 an hour which then was minimum wage and I decided to go back to school. That’s why I started working at Walmart. Now, at $13.60 an hour, if I had to live by myself I would barely be making enough money to rent a room in California. Now imagine someone starting now at minimum wage [currently $8 an hour in California] who has a child. They’re unable to support their family or themselves. Walmart says they provide healthcare. Yeah, they give you opportunity to purchase healthcare but you can’t afford it. You either put food on the table or you pay for healthcare. You can’t do both.
You went back to work the day after you got arrested. What was that like when you showed up at the store?
People were very aware because we started [the strike] on Wednesday morning here in front of my store. When we come back to work, they look at us like we’re crazy. People are scared. At Walmart on a daily basis they have morning, afternoon and evening meetings and at the meetings they give you those sales reports. They tell us, “Our customer counts are down or our sales are bad. Our hours are not going to be the greatest and there’s going to be so many cuts. They make sure you know you’re very lucky to get the hours that you get.” And then, once in a while they throw in, “We have so many people applying for every position out there,” to make you know that you’re easily replaceable. And they have been holding captive audience meetings, they say, “We didn’t ask you to come work for us, you came to us asking for a job.”
And, to me, that’s a threat. I dont think anyone likes to work under these conditions, yet we do.
I’ve heard people say if you dont want to work at Walmart you don’t have to. And, in this economy you’re lucky to have a job. I suppose the same things Walmart is telling you, their workers. What do you say to people who say that?
I tell them: I do like my job. I like providing services to people, and I am lucky to have a job, but I should be able to have a good job. And Walmart’s not only a job. It’s a job creator that sets the standard for every other industry out there.
Walmart is gearing up for Black Friday sales and you are also gearing up for Black Friday actions. What will Thanksgiving day be like for you?
As a department manager, on Thanksgiving day we’re supposed to be [at the store] at 7am, and most likely we will go home by 12 o’clock, to come back to work at 5 o’clock. Sales this year start at 6pm on Thanksgiving day. Most likely we will not be out of the store until after midnight. And, then Friday we will have to come back sometime during the back for another 8-hour shift. That would leave us less than 8 hours to rest.
Is there anything you want from people who support you and support workers?
What I would like for communities surrounding a Walmart is to go out and support the workers who are going to be out on strike. At the end of the day, the consumers are our bosses, and if Walmart doesn’t want to listen to workers inside the stores, they will listen to consumers.
Can you spell it out for people who want clear directions?
Come out, bring a sign. Bring some water. Whatever would move them to do something, whatever they are moved to do, that is what they should do. If it moves them to go in the store and leave a note, or call corporate—1-800-Walmart—then that’s what they should do, becasue this monster of a retail store is setting the trend for every other one. I remember a couple years ago, Target wouldn’t open for Thanksgiving. Now that Walmart’s doing it, everybody else is doing it.
Is there anything else you want people to know about why you’re speaking out and doing so at such great risk to yourself?
Yeah, I would like them to know that I consider myself very lucky to be in a two-income home, and I have that privilege of not being so afraid. I’m not out there just for myself I’m out there for every associate inside the stores that’s too scared of losing their job. Because that’s what we’re putting on the line, our job. And I will continue doing so until we’re heard.
First published at Colorlines.