Striking workers from Twin Cities join protests outside Walmart shareholder meeting

Sam Walton famously required that Walmart employees flash a smile and offer a greeting to anyone coming within 10 feet of their path. Moronica Owens this week discovered a few exceptions to the “10-foot rule” at Walmart’s annual shareholder meetings in Fayetteville, Ark.

“I’m a Walmart associate; I know the 10-foot rule,” Owens said. “But we had corporate people who didn’t even want to speak to us, who were giving dirty looks and ignoring us. I’m like, ‘What happened to the 10-foot rule?’”

Moronica Owens and Sheena Kennedy inform their manager at the Brooklyn Center Walmart that they are going on strike. He walked away from them. "I wanted him to know, this is exactly why I’m going on strike, to hear why I’m doing this," Owens said. "He didn’t want to hear it at all."

Moronica Owens and Sheena Kennedy inform their manager at the Brooklyn Center Walmart that they are going on strike. He walked away from them. “I wanted him to know, this is exactly why I’m going on strike, to hear why I’m doing this,” Owens said. “He didn’t want to hear it at all.”

Owens, reached by phone from the Fayetteville airport, manages the men’s apparel department at Walmart in Brooklyn Center. She and co-worker Sheena Kennedy went on strike Tuesday before traveling to Arkansas to take part in a series of demonstrations surrounding the shareholder meetings.

Striking workers and other members of OUR Walmart, which organized the demonstrations, called on the world’s largest retailer to raise wages and to stop retaliating against associates who voice their concerns.

“I was tired of the disrespect, the unfair treatment and the retaliation I’ve seen done to other associates,” Owens said, explaining her decision to go on strike. “Too many people are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to lose their job.”

Demonstrators also called on Walmart to do more for working mothers. Owens, a single mother, traveled to Arkansas with her 3-year-old son, Parish.

Owens began working as an associate when the Brooklyn Center store opened in September 2012. She saw her hourly wage increase from $7.80 to $10.90 after being promoted to department manager, and in January she enrolled herself and Parish into the company’s health insurance plan for the first time.

Owens lives with her sister, who also works at Walmart, and her sister’s three children. Even with Owens’ promotion and her earnings as a member of the Army National Guard, they struggle to afford food, particularly during weeks when the rent on their apartment is due.

“There are times when my sister comes home starving, and we barely have food in our refrigerator because our paychecks were only enough to pay the rent,” Owens said. “I’ll braid hair or go donate plasma just to, in some sense, make ends meet.”

Scrambling to keep food on the table takes time away from being a mom, Owens added.

“Spending so much time working, I’m so tired that I just want to sleep, just want to rest when I come home,” Owens said. “And there’s the stress level of knowing I have go back the next day and do the same thing. What do I have to show for all the hard work I’ve done?”

Walmart employs more women than any other private business in the U.S., but the retailer’s low wages and erratic scheduling make it difficult for mothers to support themselves, let alone their families.

Many employees are forced to rely on public assistance to make ends meet, meaning taxpayers effectively subsidize Walmart’s low wages. According to one estimate, 18 percent of all food stamp expenditures go to Walmart workers.

During their trip to Arkansas, Owens and Kennedy took part in OUR Walmart workshops and demonstrations, including one outside the home of Rob Walton, the Walmart chairman who increased his net worth by $305 million last year, to a whopping $35 billion.

The best part of the experience, Owens said, was meeting with other Walmart workers who are taking the same stand. The connection “felt like family,” she said.

“It gave me a sense of security to know that I wasn’t standing alone, to know there were more people that felt the way I felt and it’s OK that I’m speaking up,” Owens said. “Before I heard of OUR Walmart, I didn’t know it was my right to go on strike, that there were other associates who felt the need to change things.”

And despite the icy reception from Walmart executives in Fayetteville, Owens has no plans to ditch the 10-foot rule when she’s back in Brooklyn Center.

“I take pride in my work,” she said. “I’m the one who makes the store. I’m the one who’s hands-on with the customers every day. It’s like my second home.”

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