Seattle should set an example by enforcing its new labor laws

Guest Opinion: Walmart workers are striking because if they have to follow the rules, shouldn't Walmart - and other employers - have to do the same?
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Jared Surdam (right) protested certain Walmart practices at a rally outside Seattle Cty Hall.

Guest Opinion: Walmart workers are striking because if they have to follow the rules, shouldn't Walmart - and other employers - have to do the same?

As a Walmart worker, I know I need to follow the rules or suffer the consequences. But corporations should have to do the same. That's why Seattle’s new minimum wage, paid sick days and anti wage-theft laws are good ideas but only as good as the enforcement that will make sure workers like me are protected. When employers violate the law, they should be held accountable. That will not happen without strong enforcement rules and more funding.

As one of more than a million Walmart workers in America, I am very interested in the debates around improving wages and benefits and rights for workers. Even though I work in Lynnwood, I spoke last week at a Seattle event alongside other workers from Amazon to the Seattle Mariners to fast food chains. We were pushing for better enforcement of the city’s recently passed laws that are designed to help workers. We all agree that it is not good enough to just pass a new law unless there are enough teeth and funding to enforce it, and workers feel free to speak out about problems.

For example, there were workers at the rally who talked about missing meals and rest breaks. That’s just another way of working without pay. Other workers had suffered because their employer had ducked out of paying them thousands of dollars. Still others expressed concern that they would be disciplined if they were to call in sick, even with the new Paid Sick Days law.

The simple truth is that some employers feel they can violate the law and many workers do not feel they can do anything about it. That is why Walmart workers have gone on strike — joined by community leaders and customers — with a clear message: "Walmart workers are Standing UP to Live Better."

Instead of listening to our concerns, WalMart tried to deny our existence. Then they said we were few in number. Then they said few of us went on strike. After they realized none of that was working, they resorted to retaliation.

On June 4th 2014 I took part in the local strike at the Lynwood Walmart store to protest this retaliation and to call on Walmart to stop it. I am allowed to strike under Unfair Labor Practice law. On June 9th my co-worker Charles (who had also joined the strike) and I were brought into a disciplinary meeting with the store manager. We were told that Walmart would not retaliate against workers who took part in the strike.

The manager read this from a piece of paper like she was following a script. Then we were both given a formal written warning, a warning we were not allowed to see. We fear that the warning contained trumped up charges without merit. This is my third write up. I could be terminated if there is any other infraction. When Walmart can make up a charge and never even let me see it, they hold all the cards.

Workers should feel that their workplace is safe and that if they raise safety concerns their manager will at least respect them. Instead of fixing problems raised by workers, our manager has tried to bully us into silence. 

We need effective enforcement of labor laws like the new ones in Seattle. We also need to level the playing field by making it clear that workers have the right to raise concerns about their employer if the employer is breaking the law and that they should not be retaliated against for raising these concerns.

Workers who make at or near the minimum wage are having a very hard time making ends meet. The wage itself it too low and because our hours are getting cut, or our schedules are so messed up we can’t seek another job. That’s why OURWalmart is pushing for a $15 minimum wage and full-time work.

By speaking up together, here in Seattle and across the nation, we can improve conditions at workplaces, in the communities where we live and for workers like Charles and me.

Jared Surdam is a member of OURWalmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) an organization of current and former Walmart Associates taking action to improve their lives.


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