Business

09.05.13

Walmart Protesters Tell One Story, and Employees Tell Another

The protesters outside a Washington state Walmart paint one image of the company, while employees inside tell Winston Ross another tale entirely.

Larry and Edythe Slowey met at the Walmart in Renton, Washington, where they both worked, she in electronics and he in paint and hardware. If it weren't for Walmart, they might never have found each other. You could argue they owe their marriage to Walmart. She has worked there 15 years. He, 18. She makes $13.45 an hour. He, $17.65.

The perfect poster children for a heartwarming public relations campaign, right? Except these particular associates won't be starring in any commercials anytime soon. They're in jail. Or at least they were Thursday afternoon, after some exceedingly polite and overdressed members of the Renton Police Department pulled them, one by one, off the center line that splits Ranier Avenue South into two, asked the couple from nearby Port Angeles to put their hands behind their backs, secured those hands with zip ties and led them to an awaiting squad car.

The Sloweys were arrested for civil disobedience, along with a dozen or so other Walmart associates outside the Walmart store closest to Seattle, which is undergoing a 30,000-square-foot expansion that will soon transform it into a superstore. They weren't sure if the protests or their arrests would cost them their jobs—which they both like—and they don't care.

“Our wages, we get by,” Larry said. “But how about the young mothers, the young families living on $7 an hour?”

“Even if they fire us,” added Edythe, “we'll keep fighting. Not that we want to be fired.” 

So it’s an evil company, and an amazing company. Evil if you’re outside on the street. Amazing if you’re inside.

The couple joined a hundred or more other protesters who blocked the busy thoroughfare—with the cops' help, at first—in a call for higher wages, better benefits, and better treatment, one of many recent protests outside the Renton store over the past year and part of a coordinated national effort billed as a response to the company's “retaliation” against many of the employees who participated in last year’s Black Friday protests.

The protesters in Renton included Jerry Paladan, 46, of Federal Way, who had worked for seven years as a stocker before being fired a few months ago—payback, he's convinced, for a trip he took to the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, last year, to join protesters there. Paladan actually liked his job, he said, and even in a throng of malcontents he's willing to say the words “I love this company” out loud. He was making $14.25 an hour when he was fired, which is not a bad wage for a guy who moves boxes around at a big-box store.

But Paladan had a long list of gripes about working conditions at the company. Managers were dismissive of employees' concerns, he said: after malfunctioning pallet jacks gave him knee troubles, he asked supervisors again and again for a replacement, to no avail. Paladan said the company gave him other reasons for canning him, but he's convinced it's his work with Our Walmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, that really ended his tenure. Last year, he filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board against the company, alleging his managers were following him around the store and accusing him of soliciting workers to protest. He won that case, he said, but lost his job.

“I feel like it's because of my work with the union,” he said. 

But for the added drama of the civil disobedience arrests, Thursday's protests were not unlike others held outside Walmart stores across America in recent years, as the company remains a focal point for activists despite there not being much evidence that it treats workers worse than, say, Target. There was one palpable distinction in Renton, though. His name was Viet Nguyen, his business card reads vice president, corporate & public affairs at Frause Strategic Communications. Nguyen's firm is one of many that represent Walmart in what is clearly a renewed emphasis on image. Earlier this spring, the company launched a slick, $3 million ad campaign dubbed “The Real Walmart” that seeks to rebut gripes against the company. And at Thursday's protest, Nguyen was there to offer reporters a trip inside the store.

Meet the store manager, the affable Jeremy Smith, who worked his way up from produce stocker over his 17-year career. Hear him say whatever he feels like saying: that the protesters outside are a “nuisance, more than anything,” obscuring the “truth about what a great company this is to work for. This store is like a family.”

Meet some other associates, “Z” supervisors Marissa Bocoum and Josie Merveus, also saying whatever they feel like saying, which is unequivocally that Walmart has always treated them great. Bocoum started at $12 an hour seven years ago, and now makes $18. Got kids and can't afford day care? Walmart's happy to let you work a different shift, so you and your husband can swap parenting duties. Bocoum did that for five years until her youngest was off to school, and then she went right back to days, no problem. 

Hear Smith do something the company's corporate PR people would cringe at: reveal actual numbers. I've asked Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg on multiple occasions for a companywide percentage of full-time versus part-time workers. He's always (politely) said no. Smith came right out with it. In Renton, it's 74 percent, and they earn on average a little less than $14 an hour. He insists the company has a complete “open-door policy,” allowing any worker to bring any concern to any manager. And he thinks the reason Walmart is so often linked to controversy is a simple one:

“What I tell my associates is that it's like the equivalent of one team winning the Super Bowl for 30 years in a row,” he said. “There's a big bull’s-eye on your back.”

That's right, a Walmart store manager said that.

So it's an evil company, and an amazing company. Evil if you're outside on the street. Amazing if you're inside, at least to these particular employees in this particular store.

Edythe Slowey, for one, has heard many times the criticism of employees like her: you don't like your job, find another one. Her reply, after 15 years of working up to her current salary with annual raises of 40 cents an hour:

“Why should we have to start over, because they can't give a little?”