Union ‘plain wrong,’ Wal-Mart exec says

Protesters outside of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. headquarters in Bentonville on Wednesday hold cardboard cutouts of shirts with the number 1,239, the number of garment workers killed in Bangladesh recently during a factory fire and a building collapse. The protesters wanted the retailer to sign an accord to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. photo credit John Magsam

FAYETTEVILLE - “A line has been crossed,” Gisel Ruiz, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Wal-Mart U.S., said Wednesday to some 6,000 of the company’s U.S. employees attending a preshareholders meeting at Bud Walton Arena.

Ruiz was referring to the presence of members from the union affiliate OUR Walmart, or Organization United for Respect at Walmart, during the week of activities leading up to Friday’s Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting. The group is made up of paid representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers International union (UFCW) and Wal-Mart employees who have joined. OUR Walmart has conducted two protests so far this week, one Monday and another at noon Wednesday, both in front of Wal-Mart’s home office in Bentonville.

At the meeting where Ruiz spoke, she warned employ-ees, known as associates, that they’d be seeing more of the OUR Walmart contingent leading up to Friday’s shareholders meeting.

“They’re saying and shouting bad things about our company and our jobs,” she said, bringing a few “boos” from the employees in attendance.

“They refer to themselves as OUR Walmart [but] let me be clear, this organization is not associated with Wal-Mart,” Ruiz continued, and the booing grew louder. “They’re paid to be here. They’re paid to disrupt this week’s activities, and that is just plain wrong.”

Those at the meeting were handpicked from the retailer’s 1.3 million U.S. employees to attend. Selection was basedon recommendations from their peers and store managers where they work. A separate meeting was conducted Wednesday for the company’s international employees.

Just as Ruiz was attempting to ward off infiltration by the union and its affiliates, those forces were organizing for their protest in front of the home office. The group of 100 included a mix of workers from Wal-Mart operations in the U.S., Brazil and Chile; representatives of Warehouse Workers United, and a group from southern California that wants to improve working conditions in warehouses that contract with Wal-Mart.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said she wanted Wal-Mart to sign the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety which addresses worker welfare, noting more than 1,200 garment workers died in that country recently in a fire and a building collapse.

“It’s a shame Wal-Mart is not on board,” she said in an interview, noting 41 clothing brands, mostly from Europe, had signed the pact. (Wal-Mart, Gap Inc. and other brands are in the process of hammering out their own agreement, one that will keep them from being held liable in U.S. courts if the accord is violated.)

As the protest began, Akter, speaking through a bullhorn, accused the retailer of caring more about profits and disregarding the safety of workers in Bangladesh that supply products to Wal-Mart. The group marched to the corner in front of Wal-Mart’s Global People Center and left single carnations in front of a sign that read “WhyDid They Die?” They next marched up the block to the main entrance to the company’s headquarters where large buses were dropping off loads of Wal-Mart employees for tours.

Akter asked the Wal-Mart employees to help get their leadership’s signature on the European agreement.

The Wal-Mart employees, wearing blue T-shirts, chanted the Wal-Mart cheer, spelling out the company’s name and responding to the call “What does it spell?” with “Wal-Mart!” The protesters countered with shouts of “Whose Wal-Mart? Our Wal-Mart!”

On Monday, a temporary restraining order was filed prohibiting union activists from protesting on Wal-Mart’s private property. During Wednesday’s demonstration, they stayed on the sidewalk in front of the homeoffice.

OUR Walmart contends, among other things, that the retailer doesn’t pay its employees enough for them to live without government subsidies, doesn’t provide predictable and dependable schedules and tries to silence workers who speak out about work practices.

Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S. - and mentioned as a possible contender for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s job as CEO - threw out some numbers at the meeting that painted the life of a Wal-Mart associate in a more favorable light: 300,000 workers have been with the company 10 years or more, 75 percent of the store management started as hourly employees and the company promotes about 160,000 people every year.

“There’s no more free shots at us this year,” he said.“There’s no more free shots at you. We won’t stand for that, so we’re doing something about it.”

He then played a commercial from the company’s new national television and digital advertising campaign. The spot featured a 19-yearold hourly associate named Nathanial who planned to continue working at Wal-Mart after college and hopefully manage a store someday.

“People shouldn’t just assume that you’re not smart enough to know what a good job is,” Simon said, referring to the anti-Wal-Mart coalitions. “There’s nothing wrong with having entry-level jobs.”

Simon’s first job, at age 16, was washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant in Hartford, Conn.

  • John Magsam of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this article.

Business, Pages 25 on 06/06/2013