One day after exercising her legally protected right to strike, April Williams walked back into the Brooklyn Center Walmart for her scheduled shift this morning. But Williams did not take that walk alone.
In the parking lot outside the store, about 25 people, including eight clergy members, huddled around Williams, praying for a safe return to her job without retaliation from management. The group then followed Williams on her way toward the store entrance, singing the hymn “Come Walk With Us.”
Three people from the group accompanied Williams inside the building, including Rev. Doug Mork, pastor at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center.
“The manager met us at the door and said, ‘Let’s go clock in,’” Mork said.
OUR Walmart, the non-union organizing group behind a wave of unfair-labor-practice strikes and protests expected across the country this week, plans similar displays of support for two other workers who joined the Brooklyn Center strike, Lillian Griffin and Andrea Williams, when they return to work later this week.
“All who work hard are entitled to a living wage that provides for the basic necessities,” Rev. Laurie Eaton, pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, said. “We want to ensure that today, Walmart and other big corporations get a clear message: We support April and her peers in their quest for economic dignity.”
Walmart managers, Mork added, “must treat April fairly as she comes back from this protected activity she has engaged in.”
It remains to be seen whether support from clergy and community leaders like U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who walked out of the Brooklyn Center store with strikers yesterday, will deter management from illegally threatening, disciplining or firing workers for their participation in organizing activities. Walmart has a track record of such behavior, and the National Labor Relations Board last week announced its intent to prosecute the company for targeting OUR Walmart supporters in 14 states, including Minnesota.
Going on strike was “a big step,” April Williams said, but not one she regretted taking.
“I was scared, just like all of the people in there,” she said, pointing to her store. “But living like this is not working for me. I’m like everyone else there who needs food stamps. It’s helping, but I shouldn’t have to use them.”
The striking workers’ demands included higher wages, full-time scheduling for employees who want it and an end to retaliation against workers who speak out for change.
“I just want to make a stand and let everyone in there know that you do have a voice,” Williams said.
The non-profit, faith-based coalition ISAIAH, which turned out supporters this morning, held a brief press conference outside the Walmart, where Mork and Eaton talked about the faith community’s commitment to eliminating poverty wages.
“People do not exist to serve the economy; the economy exists to serve people,” Mork said. “Our calling is to make a change. Employers happy to receive tax dollars ought to be providing living-wage jobs. That’s why we’re here.”
ISAIAH, with more than 100 member congregations statewide, is part of a coalition of labor and community groups pushing for a significant increase to Minnesota’s minimum wage during the 2014 Legislative Session.
Corporations like Walmart aren’t likely to raise workers’ wages on their own, Eaton acknowledged. “This is why today we have to elect officials who have the power to fix this broken system,” she said. “It is well past time to pass an increase in the minimum wage.”
And that increase ought to be meaningful.
“As religious leaders, we will not ask, ‘Did the Legislature increase the minimum wage?’ Eaton said. “We will ask, ‘Did the Legislature do away with poverty wages?’”