It would be hard to compete with Pharaoh in the realm of obduracy, but Walmart is giving the old man a run for his money. Like the Israelite brick makers of Exodus Chapters 5-11 Walmart workers, organized as OUR Walmart, are asking for respect—specifically, increasing the flexibility of working hours, moving up to full-time work when possible, and increasing pay to a minimum of $25,000 annually.
In addition they are calling for an end to retaliation against associates involved in OUR Walmart and its mini-strikes, like last year’s Black Friday. More than 100 alleged Walmart retaliation cases are pending at the National Labor Relations Board.
Since Memorial Day, hundreds of courageous Walmart associates have walked off the job and are now caravanning together to bring their concerns to Walmart’s June 7 shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. They will demand an end to retaliation against associates who organize and hope to begin a dialogue on scheduling and wages at a time when Walmart CEO Mike Duke makes $20.7 million per year—more than 1,000 times the wages of the average Walmart associate.
It’s important for Catholics to show our support for Walmart associates by lifting up OUR Walmart’s shareholder resolution on executive compensation, educating consumers about their campaign, and meeting with store managers to let them know we stand in solidarity with Walmart associates in their struggle for decent pay, full-time work, and an end to retaliation for organizing.
Why should Catholics care? Our commitment to the rights of workers, particularly low-wage workers, is as old as the Hebrew scriptures, dating to the Lord’s dramatic intervention in the labor dispute between the Israelites and Pharaoh. It was renewed in earnest by the publication of the first papal social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and is now enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism notes that we bring dignity to work because we are made in the image of God, and this dignity must be respected. Workers therefore have the right to a living wage, decent working conditions, and proper rest.
The Catechism emphasizes the importance of solidarity among workers and the right to strike when necessary, but it also underscores the importance of solidarity between employers and employees, which requires the mutual respect OUR Walmart demands.
The organization, which is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers but is not itself a union, is making some headway in confronting Walmart’s obduracy. Following April mini-strikes and the faith community’s response, Walmart agreed to a new scheduling policy and the rights of current part-time associates to switch to full-time when full-time positions become available.
Much work remains, and Walmart associates will only know justice when their actions are accompanied by broad support from Catholic Walmart customers and shareholders (and many of us are already shareholders through our retirement and college savings plans). Hopefully, Yahweh’s plagues will not be necessary.
Support workers’ call for change at Walmart by joining the National Day of Action for Dignity and Respect, Friday, June 7. Please visit www.iwj.org for more information on the campaign and resources.