MARCH 30, 2018
The following is an excerpt from Annelise Orleck’s “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
GIRSHRIELA GREEN FELT a weight lift from her shoulders when she founded Respect the Bump, an advocacy group for pregnant Walmart workers. “We used to blame ourselves and blame each other for everything,” she says. “Once we got educated, we knew that something needed to be done. Because this was not a give-and-take relationship with Walmart. It was just take.”
Venanzi Luna, leader of the 2012 Pico Rivera strike, felt a rush of power “being part of OUR Walmart. I learned what retaliation is, what intimidation is, what rights workers have. I would never have imagined in my life that I have so many rights at work. Walmart likes to say that the union puts words in my mouth. I say: Nobody speaks for me. This organization gives me the knowledge I need so I can speak for myself.”
At first, recalls Green — a 48-year-old mother of seven — getting a job at the Crenshaw Walmart in South Central Los Angeles was a tremendous boost. “I got the job through welfare-to-work,” she says. “I knew absolutely nothing. I was a loyal Walmart employee, dedicated to my job and my employer. I was told at orientation that I could have a career at Walmart. That was a dream come true for someone like me. So I fought for that career.”
Green says she was a model employee. She “exceeded expectations” during employee evaluations and was promoted “a couple of times.” Within three years, Green had become a department manager for health and beauty products. It was a great feeling. “Then I started to realize that something was really wrong.”
For starters, the promotion brought her only a 20-cent raise — to $9.80 an hour. Then there was the pressure. Store managers are constantly pushed to cut staff, Green says, to come in under the “preferred labor budget” determined by corporate executives. Green never had enough workers in her department to do everything her store manager wanted. The stress was killing her.
Walmart is the world’s largest private employer — with two million employees in 11,695 stores in 28 countries, under 69 corporate banners. It imports more products from China than any other US company. By some estimates, those imports cost four hundred thousand American workers their jobs. Walmart’s managerial culture has been adapted in stores worldwide. In China, a hundred thousand associates work in an environment that employs the cult-like aspects of Sam Walton’s business vision within hierarchical structures of Chinese communism. The result has been called “Wal-Maoism.”
It’s not much better in the United States, says Green. Surveillance of low-wage workers has been growing worse for years. “This call may be monitored for quality assurance.” We’ve all heard that so many times, we never think about what that means for workers. It’s just as bad in person, say Amazon and Walmart workers. Computers monitor how many items a cashier scans per hour, says OUR Walmart activist Cesare Davunt. Everyone is expected to meet quotas. “It’s gotten so bad, associates are afraid to go to the bathroom.”
Surveillance, speed, stress, and understaffing are why so many Walmart workers get hurt on the job. Ever cost-conscious, Walmart fights hard to avoid paying compensation or providing medical care. The company has waged a long campaign to allow employers to opt out of paying into the federal Workers’ Compensation program. As of 2015, only Texas and Oklahoma permit that. Still, Walmart cuts costs by self-insuring. All settlements with injured workers come from company coffers, so Walmart contests every worker claim vigorously.
Girshriela Green believes she got hurt because “we were severely understaffed. I was doing the work of five people and I developed a repetitive injury in my arm. Since management told me to keep on working, I compensated with the rest of my body and ended up with a bone spur in my throat.” Injury on the job is an all-too-common story at Walmart.
“I was given 24 hours to return to work or quit,” Green says.
“But after I was injured, I was treated so badly at work.” She shakes a little, remembering. “After all the work I had put in, that was heartbreaking to me. But I had kids. I couldn’t afford not to work.”
Walmart tries to avoid firing workers, she says, because “corporate” does not like to pay unemployment. Instead, they make life so unbearable that workers quit. This has been especially true for pregnant workers, Green believes.
“I didn’t tell my boss at first when I returned to work that I was pregnant. I was terrified. I knew the odds were already against me because of my injury. Then I came in with a release from my doctor saying I shouldn’t do heavy lifting.” Her manager was furious and things deteriorated quickly. Before long, Green’s injuries became debilitating.
She was sitting at home in a neck brace, warned by a doctor not to move too much, when the phone rang. It was a group she had never heard of: Organization United for Respect at Walmart. She wanted nothing to do with them, afraid she’d lose her job. Then a close friend was fired without warning after 20 years. “That was it for me. I knew then that we weren’t the problem. They were.” She and her friend joined OUR Walmart together.
Green wanted to take OUR Walmart in a new direction, organizing pregnant workers. She began by using the OUR Walmart Facebook page to link workers in different stores. Meanwhile, she studied the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act to learn what accommodations pregnant workers could legally request.
At first, pregnant Walmart associates only “met” online. Then Green started traveling for face-to-face encounters. The United Food and Commercial Workers funded her journeys. Green recalls meeting a Texan named Chrissy Creech whose manager had refused to give her bathroom breaks. Creech’s mother patted her daughter’s pregnant belly and said to Green: “They need to respect this bump.” The name stuck.
A new kind of labor organization was born, dressed in fuchsia maternity smocks. Green was amazed at how many women wanted to join Respect the Bump. Maryland Walmart associate Tiffany Beroid received nine hundred responses when she posted stories about her experiences of discrimination. Latavia Johnson in Chicago had a similar experience.
“A lot of women started speaking out about their hardships,” Green says, “about being retaliated against, discriminated against, being pushed out early, not given accommodations, being told that they had to lift a certain amount or they needed to leave.” Respect the Bump called on Walmart to change its policy of not accommodating pregnant workers. They announced plans for a pregnant women’s protest at the 2014 Walmart shareholders’ meeting. Corporate caved before the meeting, Green says, smiling, and for the first time agreed to accommodate pregnant workers. “They smelled a lawsuit coming.”
Green was pleased with the victory, but the policy change mostly helped women with “high-risk pregnancies,” she says. All pregnant workers needed accommodations to be safe at work. Thelma Moore was hit by a falling television set at the Chatham, Illinois, store. Ordered back to work, she refused and was fired. Moore came to Respect the Bump for help. “I’m here to stand up for myself, and other pregnant women all over the world,” Moore said.
Respect the Bump gathered an army of angry pregnant Walmart workers at its first national conference in Chicago in September 2014. Delegates demanded that Walmart comply with the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. They also announced a campaign to press for a more expansive bill, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. State versions of the bill have since passed in 21 states, and in 2017 it was reintroduced in Congress.
Attorneys from the National Women’s Law Center and at A Healthy Balance — a law practice dedicated to improving working conditions for pregnant employees and workers with small children — helped Thelma Moore and other pregnant associates file suit against Walmart. Respect the Bump picketed the store where Moore had worked. Among the protesters was Bene’t Holmes, who miscarried in a Walmart bathroom after her manager forced her to lift 50-pound boxes containing bleach and other toxic chemicals.
“They don’t even follow their own policies,” says Denise Barlage. “The rule is ‘two for a lift of 50 or more.’” When the store manager came out to ask the protesters to leave, Holmes handed him a water bottle and a stool. These two “little things,” she told him, can prevent miscarriages at work.
In the spring of 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that pregnant workers have a right to workplace accommodations. Respect the Bump was a party to the pregnancy discrimination case brought by United Parcel Service worker Peggy Young. Interestingly, the Young decision, like the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act on which it was based, was supported by conservative as well as feminist groups, working-class and middle-class women, pro-choice and pro-life organizations. Pregnancy discrimination was clearly an issue that transcended traditional political divisions, and the court’s conservative justices concurred.
Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had rejected a sex discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of Walmart’s 1.4 million women workers. Originally brought by a 52-year-old African-American woman named Betty Dukes, the suit claimed that Walmart managers discriminated against women. Plaintiffs pointed to a workforce that was 72 percent female, and a managerial team that was more than two-thirds male.
Lawyers for Dukes showed that Walmart corporate had, at every turn, prevented women from building the kinds of careers that Girshriela Green had been promised. But in the Dukes case, the justices split along partisan lines, with conservatives ruling that lawyers for the plaintiffs had not proven their case for sex discrimination. Women’s right to pursue careers free from sex discrimination remained controversial even in the 21st century. But in the 2015 Young case, joined by Respect the Bump, the court affirmed women’s right to remain safe at work through a pregnancy. Some said the victory belonged more to babies than their moms. Still, it was a victory, and a significant one.
Unfortunately for Green, by the time it came, she had been fired by Walmart. “I knew they were aware of my organizing. I was doing a lot of speaking out in public at that time.” Still, she thinks she crossed a line when she was quoted in the Los Angeles Times. “I hope to send a direct message that we will not take the abuse, the disrespect, the impoverished wages, the neglect of communities, associates and small businesses any longer,” she told reporters. The movement to hold Walmart accountable was growing, and that heartened Green. “My voice is louder with each and every one of these voices.”
Respect the Bump continued to organize and Green remained at the forefront. The group began to “take on issues of single parents too, especially not having a regular work schedule that will let parents maintain a healthy environment for their children.” Walmart’s insistence that workers come in whenever managers call has gotten some single parents in trouble with Child Protective Services, Green says. They don’t always have time to get a sitter. Fearful of losing their jobs, they leave their children alone. “It doesn’t matter if they are 11-year or nine-year or just two-year associates,” she says. “Walmart expects them to jump the minute they call.”
And usually they go, says former deli manager Venanzi Luna, until the day something breaks inside. Then, says Luna, “you know you won’t jump, even one more time. There is only so long you can live in fear.” The corrosive disrespect builds up scar tissue that becomes ever more inflamed. Her floor manager yelled at her in front of customers many times before she finally exploded. Called into the store manager’s office to explain, she seethed: “How dare he? I am not his daughter. He is not my dad.”
Denise Barlage remembers the moment she reached her limit. “I told my manager: ‘My husband knows better than to talk to me like that. Who do you think you are?’ He said: ‘Denise, sit down.’ I said, ‘No, this is done.’ I told him I knew my rights and walked out.”
Learning their legal rights has been transformative, Luna and Barlage say. They throw around the phrase “unfair labor practice” (ULP) whenever managers bully them. “I will always have to fight,” says Barlage. “I understand that. But the constant intimidation gets you down. When you just want to do your job and you are constantly getting ‘coached.’”
“One time a manager pulled me over, physically you know, and he said: ‘You just took a 22-minute break.’” Barlage shot back: “‘Are you counting my bathroom time?’ I had to pull out my wallet and show him my card, which shows my right to take a break. ‘I know how to file a ULP,’ I said. ‘This is getting old, guys.’ And it was.”
Walmart specializes in intimidation and retaliation, OUR Walmart workers say (and the National Labor Relations Board has affirmed this repeatedly since 2010). “As soon as they found out that I was part of OUR Walmart,” Luna says, “it all started. They gave me a verbal, a write-up, and my last warning all in one week. That was unheard of.”
When managers ordered Luna to write a statement explaining why she wanted to keep her job, she replied: “You’re not going to get that from me. You never asked me how many times I didn’t take a lunch. How many times I never took a break! How many times you asked me to fix the time clock so that it shows I took a break when I didn’t, so it says I took a lunch when I didn’t. I’ll show you who Venanzi is.’ That same day I filed a ULP.”
Salvadoran immigrant and 11-year Walmart associate Evelin Cruz came to the boiling point after years of watching managers and corporate executives be gratuitously cruel to workers. Cruz was treated well. But she grew ever more horrified watching managers demean grown women and men.
At daily morning meetings, she recalled, “It was drilled into all of us how replaceable we were.” Cruz felt that Walmart intentionally made “predatory hires: single mothers, felons, people they knew would keep quiet just because of their situation, because they’re the sole supporters of their families or because they have a record and are not able to get better employment.” She burned watching. “It was just so wrong.”
The final straw for Cruz was when her store manager denied leave to a co-worker whose daughter was dying of cancer. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Cruz told the manager, the woman had a right to take time with her daughter. The manager refused. “How dare they?” Cruz was incredulous. “It’s hard enough to have a child who’s dying. But to not be able to take care of that child because you have to work? To worry about putting food on the table and a roof over your children’s heads at such a time? To worry about not having medication for your child to survive a little longer or to lessen her pain? I couldn’t stand it. What I saw in that one instant opened my eyes. That’s when I became an activist.”
Jenny Mills says she became an activist when her son was injured on the job and Walmart “gave him the runaround.” She had been working at Walmart for nine years before his accident. Looking back, she can’t believe it took her so long to open her eyes.
She told me her story on a hot September day in 2015, over a breakfast of banana and smoothie at the Denny’s where she washes up each morning after sleeping in her car. Mills was wearing the green OUR Walmart T-shirt with thumb and forefinger forming an O and three fingers pointing upward. That was the signal activists would use to silently connect inside the stores. Managers listened for any talk of unionizing. So activists created a hand sign.
Jenny Mills was not one of those pioneers. “I was afraid,” Mills says. “I had never done anything like this before, so I was nervous about what the repercussions would be.” But a friend said that it was her responsibility as a mother to fight for young people. OUR Walmart probably won’t save middle-aged workers, her friend said. “But we need to help the next generation.”
Mills’s son was a night-shift worker. In small towns like Pico Rivera where Walmart contributes 10 percent of all tax revenue, it is common for multiple family members to work at the same store. Working and living together, pooling income to pay the bills, they can get by on Walmart salaries — until something happens.
The men who steam-clean the floors each night at Pico usually put rugs down to prevent workers from slipping, Mills says. One night they forgot. “My son was pushing a cart when his feet went right out from under him. He landed on his back and elbows. After that, he was in such pain it was ridiculous.” The company delayed sending him to the doctor, she says. Meanwhile, they told him to return to work or lose his job.
Finally, he got to see a Walmart doctor who said he would have to live with the pain. Jenny insisted he get a second opinion. “That doc told us my son’s tailbone was hanging on by a thread. He needed surgery, and soon.” Three years later, Walmart was still refusing to pay.
The injury would not have been so debilitating, Mills says, if Walmart had given him time to recover. Instead, they had him “lifting and twisting and doing all the things he could not do” until he was completely incapacitated. Since then, he has been unable to work.
At the time her son was injured, Mills still had her job at the Pico store. The two lived together. Then her son lost his job and the landlord raised the rent from $1,000 to $1,400. “I lost my apartment because I wasn’t getting paid enough to keep it on my own. I was making more than $13 an hour. It took me nine years to get to that wage and I couldn’t afford my apartment. New people come in making $9 an hour and they don’t get to work full-time. Come on!” She raises her voice. Heads turn. “Who can rent an apartment in California on $9 an hour part-time?”
When I met Jenny, she was living in a small hatchback with her husband and cat. And she wasn’t the only homeless employee at the Pico Rivera store. “There were at least three others,” she says.
For a few months, her manager let her park (and sleep) in the store parking lot. But after she joined in a protest when Walmart board members were meeting the prime minister of Japan, she was evicted. “A guard came and told my husband that corporate had seen my name in the newspaper and we couldn’t park our car there anymore.”
The owners of Party City, a nearby store, told the couple they could park and sleep in one of their parking spaces. It was right across from Walmart. Her old boss could see her get out of her car every morning and walk deliberately to Denny’s to brush her teeth and wash her face.
Walmart closed the Pico store in April 2015 and Mills lost her only income. The UFCW gave her husband a part-time job but it didn’t pay enough for them to put together first and last month’s rent on a new place. At 53 years old, Mills applied for and received a Pell grant to study computer science at a nearby community college. She is hoping an associate’s degree will help her find a job that pays enough that she can rent an apartment, or at least a mobile home. Meanwhile, she says, being active in OUR Walmart keeps her spirits up.
“I’m very enthused about the movement. I think we have a lot to gain,” she says “It’s empowering to stand up. Maybe we won’t benefit right away. But I’m really doing it at this point for future generations. It’s for them that I keep telling the story of what happened to me. I’m going to stay active in the movement no matter what. We need to help people get better jobs.”
Though it is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to fire workers for organizing, every OUR Walmart activist I interviewed had been fired. One large wave of firings came after the 2013 Ride for Respect, which brought a hundred associates from across the country to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Girshriela Green recalls the meeting.
“They wouldn’t let us in. The senior VP for Labor Relations and Human Resources came out and we stood in the parking lot with her for an hour. The workers kept saying to her: ‘You need to respect your associates.’ All of us were underpaid, so for associates to insist on respect before talking about a fair wage should have let them know how wrong things were.
“She assured us she had no idea we were being treated badly and no one else in corporate did either. We told her we were in fear for our jobs when we got back.” Green shakes her head. “She said she would not tolerate retaliation from any manager. Of course, as soon as we got back, the firings started.”
The next time activist protesters traveled to Walmart headquarters, Green says, “we were met in the parking lot with dogs. Yeah. Police dogs and private police were blocking us and telling us we were not welcome as associates in our own home office. So we said to them: ‘We are the heartbeat of the company. How dare you treat a vital part of your body like that?’”
Barbara Collins remembers it too. She had worked in the Placerville, California, store for seven years before she joined the second Ride for Respect. She was fired three weeks after she came back to work. She joined other fired workers filing suit with the NLRB.
The NLRB ruled that their rights had been violated. Walmart protesters won NLRB suits in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Denise Barlage believes that this was because the corporation’s behavior was so egregious and so obviously illegal. The NLRB had no choice, she says. In January 2014, the NLRB ruled that Walmart had illegally disciplined and fired 60 workers in 24 states for participating in Black Friday protests. Eleven months later, the NLRB ruled that managers at two California stores had broken the law by threatening to fire workers and close stores if employees organized. That’s how Barbara Collins got her job back.
In January 2016, the NLRB ordered Walmart to rehire 16 laid-off workers, including Evelin Cruz, and to compensate them “for any loss of earning and other benefits suffered as a result of the discrimination.” Walmart appealed. In May 2016, the NLRB ruled again that Walmart was guilty of illegal retaliation against workers. In an extraordinary punishment, it ordered store managers in 10 states to read aloud to workers the statutes affirming their right to organize.
Collins was excited to return to her store. “It takes a long time for anything to happen through the government,” she says, “but I wanted to go back (at a higher wage of course) and just smile at the manager who fired me.” In the midst of her ebullience she grows serious. “There are still a lot of people who are just consumed by fear. I want to be an example. You can win.”
For some, victory took too long. Evelin Cruz, who suffered from chronic heart disease, died before she could enjoy her victory. Barlage will never forget the night Cruz called her, crying, to the hospital. “I told her things were going to be okay but she just shook her head and said: ‘Promise me you’ll keep with the program.’” Barlage told her friend to calm down and rest. But Cruz was anxious and insistent. “Promise me!” she said as tears rolled down her face. Barlage did.
Barbara Collins returned to her job at the Placerville Walmart but she says she was a different person than when she was fired. The movement had changed her. “I learned about the economy. I registered to vote. I was 40 years old and I had never registered to vote. I didn’t think my voice mattered. OUR Walmart taught me that our voices do matter.” Collins learned she was good at lobbying. When California passed the paid-sick-leave bill she had worked on, Collins was invited to stand with Governor Jerry Brown when he signed it. Barlage stood beside Brown when he signed the $15 living-wage bill.
“Besides the historic stuff,” says Collins, “protesting is fun.” Gleefully, she boasts that she has been arrested eight times. She was among 42 Walmart employees who shut down Park Avenue in November 2014, sitting in the street atop a giant OUR Walmart blanket. Facing Alice Walton’s building, they chanted: “Didn’t your mother teach you to share?” Collins was also blocked the doors to Walmart’s lobbying firm in Washington, DC. To celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation, the two plan to get arrested together.
Tyfani Faulkner was fired on a spurious charge but she has no intention of giving up the fight for Walmart workers. She now works as a home-health aide, caring for fragile, elderly patients. She likes the work. It feels meaningful and the hours are flexible. She works back-to-back 24-hour shifts. “That leaves me plenty of time for OUR Walmart,” she says.
Faulkner, Green, Luna, Barlage, and other OUR Walmart leaders are in for the long haul. But they know well that the stakes are high and victories hard-won. “Everyone in OUR Walmart has suffered a lot,” Luna says. The Pico women, widely known for their courage and militancy, were badly shaken in April 2015 when Walmart closed their store. In a husky, whispery voice, Luna notes that 533 families “lost their breadwinner.” And it wasn’t just Pico. Five stores in four states were closed, 2,200 workers laid off without warning.
Luna came to work that day and found the doors locked. Full-time workers and a few part-time employees received 60 days’ severance. Many got nothing. Walmart claimed that workers who wanted transfers to other stores were given them. Luna says that is not true and that no activists were offered transfers.
Management claimed the stores were shut down to repair plumbing problems. OUR Walmart and allies in the UFCW say it was punishment. Walmart had warned workers they would shut down stores to punish organizing, says Barbara Collins. When meat cutters in a Texas store voted to unionize, Walmart moved to prepackaged meats. It’s how they respond, workers say, swiftly and with imperial coldness.
When the Pico store reopened, not one OUR Walmart activist was rehired. “I was suicidal for a while,” Luna admits. “People came to me and said: ‘If it wasn’t for you, we would still have our jobs.’” For a moment, she rests her forehead on her arms, then resumes. Court injunctions prevent OUR Walmart activists from entering Walmart stores, except to shop. Even that is denied her, says Luna. When she walked into the reopened Pico store to shop, someone recognized her. She was escorted out by security.
Deep friendships are the gift that compensates for many losses. “It’s all her fault.” Barlage nudges her younger friend. “She’s the one that signed me up. When I first started doing this, there was so much negative feedback from everybody else. You know: ‘If you don’t like what you’re doing, get another job’? I was ready to say, ‘Venanzi, I’m out. I can’t do this. It’s too negative.’ But she said: ‘It’s okay, mom. We’re going to change things.’”
Over a long lunch of Mexican food, they reminisce about their high times. They begin with the first walkout at a US Walmart, back in 2012. Barlage lets out a hearty laugh. “Venanzi said to me, ‘Mama, we’re going to strike over our ULP.’ I didn’t even know what a ULP was then. She said, ‘Just be there. Tomorrow. We’re going to strike.’ I thought, ‘Oh, crap.’” Barlage pressed herself against the back wall, hoping Luna might miss her. “But she took my hand and said, ‘Come on, mama. Let’s do this.’”
Luna says, “I didn’t know if the associates would really walk out.” But she and Barlage and Cruz had done their jobs well: Luna organized the fresh-food workers; Evelin, health and beauty; and Barlage, the night shift. The night workers liked the idea of striking, Barlage says, because they were the ones most frequently injured. “Everyone is scared to leave their position to ask for help so they lift heavy boxes alone, and they get hurt.” After a quick visit to the “No Care” clinic, she says, “they are given an aspirin and sent back to work. So when I said, ‘Let’s get together, let’s make a change,’ they were receptive. You bet.”
Still, the workers were nervous, says Luna. “They kept asking me, ‘Can we get fired?’ And I said, ‘No, we cannot get fired. We will file a ULP for you.’ I tried to hide how scared I was.” Luna’s manager glared as she walked the strikers out the front door. “They were on the phone with corporate as I said: ‘Clock out everyone. The strike begins now!’ And people were like, ‘Oh, my God. Walmart workers just went on strike to protest retaliation.’”
It wasn’t until she was outside, Luna says, that it hit her. “Oh, my God! We are on strike. She heard management tell reporters that the strikers were not Walmart workers, that they were outside agitators, union organizers. Luna laughs. “I told them, ‘Come see me inside at the deli where I work.’”
Support came from across the globe. The best was the busload of unionized Walmart workers from Uruguay, South Africa, Italy, and elsewhere, who came to walk them back in. When she saw the parade of foreign workers marching behind her, Luna says: “I got goose bumps. I felt like the president of the United States walking into the store with all of them behind us, dancing and singing. When the store manager tried to throw them out, they said, ‘We’re Walmart workers. We have a right to be here.’” Luna heard workers whispering that the strikers were going to be fired. She didn’t think so. It felt “so good having that support from everywhere. I said: ‘No. This is what happens when you actually believe in something.’ Our emotions went wild that day.”
Barlage nudges Luna in the shoulder. “She’s an emotional girl.” She tells of the time they shut down Cesar Chavez Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. They were all there: Evelin Cruz, Tyfani Faulkner, Girshriela Green, and a raft of supporters from organized labor and from Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice.
“The day was so hot,” Barlage remembers, “and we were all nervous. I looked at Venanzi and she was on her knees hyperventilating. She wouldn’t look at me. The cops were coming down the line, reading people their rights. I was three people down from Venanzi. There was this young guy next to her and I said: ‘I need you to put your hand on Venanzi’s back because she looks like she’s going to pass out.’ He looked at me funny. But he did it. And then I said, ‘Now rub her back.’ He did, and I saw Venanzi start to breathe again.”
Luna had not told her parents that she was going to be arrested. “I didn’t want them to see me on TV,” she says. “They would be: ‘Oh, my God, what are you doing?’ I was okay once we were arrested. But those few moments, in the streets waiting, I was nerve-racked.”
In prison, Rabbi Jonathan Klein of CLUE relaxed them by getting everyone to sing: old civil rights and labor songs, even Motown. “In one cell were the women,” Luna and Barlage recall. “On the other side of a brick wall were the men.” They heard Rabbi Klein start singing. “He said, ‘Come on, everybody. Let’s sing.’” Luna laughs. “It was like a party in jail.” Luna says she started to joke with the police. “I told them I didn’t like my mug shot. They needed to let me get my lipstick, let me fix my hair, and take it again.”
The pleasures of protest, the rush of feeling a part of history. When Barlage, Luna, Faulkner, and 25 others shut down the Crenshaw store in November 2014, they made the national news. It was the first retail sit-down strike since saleswomen occupied Woolworth in Detroit and New York in 1937.
“We shut down the store for almost two hours,” Luna says with glee. “Corporate was freaking out.” They taped their mouths shut to protest Walmart’s attempts to silence workers, wrote the word “strike” in thick black letters on the tape. Leaning against the display cases cross-legged, they held up black-and-white pictures of the Woolworth strikers — role models, allies from another time. Barlage and Luna grin, remembering. “We enjoyed that.”
That same night, Cruz led hundreds of protesters in Pico singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Then, tweaking Walmart’s slogan “Pay Less, Live Better,” they sat down in traffic holding hand-lettered signs that said: “Sit Down, Live Better.”
“But maybe the best times, and the scariest,” Luna says, were their trips to Walmart shareholders’ meetings. They’ve all gone several times. Faulkner went four years in a row. “It can be shocking the first time you go,” she says, “because they hold it in a basketball stadium. And when you think of how the workers live and you see this extravagant concert and show that they call a shareholders’ meeting, it can feel very overwhelming.”
“Walmart Moms” came one year to speak about their children’s needs for clothing, food, and medical care. Another year, the fired Pico strikers demanded their jobs back. The protesters cornered Walmart’s CEO and spoke directly to him. “Doug McMillon was very polite to us,” Barlage says. “He talked for about 30 minutes.” Over the years, they have even gotten face-to-face meetings with Alice Walton.
In June 2013, two months after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Walmart workers helped bring Kalpona Akter to Bentonville. She spoke directly to the Walton family, asking why they would not spend even one percent of one year’s personal dividends to save the lives of the workers who sew the clothing that has made them a fortune.
Venanzi Luna introduced a petition from the floor in 2012 asking CEO Rob Walton to step aside. She spoke again in 2015, demanding to know why the Pico store had been closed and hundreds of workers laid off. “I get really nervous speaking in front of people,” she says. “This was thousands of associates and Walmart corporate. And the family. My hands were shaking. If you look at the video you can see my entire body was shaking.” A working-class hero is something to be. But Luna will let you know that her fierceness is just covering her fear.
Since the 2016 election, Tyfani Faulkner has been trying to heal rifts in the movement, reaching out to Walmart workers who voted for Donald Trump. Though she voted for Clinton, she says she understands those who didn’t. “They wanted to believe in what Trump said he’d do: bring back manufacturing jobs. Then they wouldn’t have to work at Walmart anymore. That excited them.” Faulkner says she’s trying to “reunite us around the goals we all share. If you voted for Trump because he said he’d help workers, then hold him to it.”
Luna has been through a lot since the 2012 strike. She’s lost her job, lost Evelin, lost her mom, whom she nursed through it all. “It’s not easy,” she says. “Everybody who is part of this movement has suffered. But without that suffering we wouldn’t be where we are.”
I ask her where she thinks they are. She says, “The ladies that made a revolution at Walmart, we literally started a chain reaction. First it was the Walmart workers, then the fast-food workers, the car washeros. … It’s still going on. We did that! We started it.
“People never expected Walmart workers to take a stand against the world’s biggest company. But you know what? If we can change Walmart, we can change everything. People don’t realize how much power they have as workers. But if you put your little bit of rights on the line and go from that, you can change anything in the world.”
Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty.
Liz Cooke was born and raised in Brooklyn. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to photograph Holocaust survivors and Soviet émigrés in her childhood neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in numerous publications. Most recently her photographs of Newburgh, New York, were featured in the Guardian (UK).