From fast food to retail, workers in low-wage jobs around the country, including Minnesota, are increasingly staging short-term, high-profile strikes to advance their movements for higher wages and a voice on the job.
Walking off the job in protest is a costly, risky tactic to employ – even for one day. In addition to foregoing wages, workers who join a strike make themselves a target for retaliation from management, and they take a leap of faith that their jobs will be waiting when the strike is over.
First, a judge’s ruling against Walmart confirmed workers cannot be fired or punished for exercising their legally protected right to strike. Meanwhile, retail cleaning workers, who have been staging short-term strikes in the Twin Cities for nearly two years, announced a major victory in their campaign to improve working conditions at Target stores – proof the strategy can yield results.
Targeting workers who stand up
The Walmart ruling upholds employees’ right to engage in “protected group activity,” as defined in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, to improve their pay and working conditions. Withholding labor is among those activities, and employers may not fire or discipline workers for striking.
The strategy is most often used by union members – from bus drivers to professional athletes – looking to pressure their employer during contract negotiations. But Justin Cummins, an employment law specialist with the Twin Cities firm Cummins & Cummins, said the right to strike applies to non-union workers as well.
“Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who act together to address their working conditions,” Cummins said. “That protection applies to workers whether they are in a union or not.
“The NLRA also gives all workers the right to strike, again regardless of whether the workers are in a union.”
Walmart violated the law, according to last week’s ruling, when it disciplined six workers at a Northern California store for “abandoning work” or “refusing to return to work” during a strike in 2012. It was among the first in a wave of Walmart strikes across the U.S. over the last two-plus years, coordinated by workers fighting for higher wages, more stable scheduling and union rights.
The judge ordered all “coachings” – Walmart’s term for disciplinary actions – removed from the striking workers’ records.
Walmart is likely to appeal the decision, but more rulings against the company are expected in the coming months. The National Labor Relations Board is in the process of prosecuting Walmart on charges of illegal firings and disciplinary actions involving more than 70 members of the worker-led, pro-union group OUR Walmart nationwide, including in Minnesota.
“The judge’s decision confirms what Walmart workers have known for a long time – the company is illegally trying to silence and intimidate employees who speak out for better jobs,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of the workers’ rights watchdog Jobs With Justice. “Walmart is facing increasing outrage from customers, community members and clergy who are standing with Walmart workers bravely calling for an end to abuse of power and for a stronger economy that supports all working families.”
An effective tool?
Like members of OUR Walmart and fast-food workers engaged in the Fight for $15, retail janitors in the Twin Cities have employed the short-term strike as a tactic in their fight against sub-poverty wages, lack of benefits and unsafe working conditions at cleaning contractors that service chains like Target, Kohl’s and Home Depot.
For the second straight year, members of the local worker center CTUL, a Spanish acronym for “Center for Workers United in the Struggle,” called a strike on Black Friday, and janitors from over 50 stores across the Metro participated.
But days before the Black Friday strike, one subcontractor, Kellermeyer Bergeson’s Services (KBS), struck an agreement to keep picket lines away from stores it services. In exchange, KBS agreed to respect the rights of its workers to organize with the Service Employees International Union.
The agreement puts KBS on the path to compliance with Target’s new Responsible Contractor Policy. Implemented in June, the policy was a landmark victory for CTUL’s retail cleaning campaign, which used short-term strikes, starting in early 2013, to pressure Target into taking responsibility for working conditions inside its stores.
CTUL members like Bonifacio Salinas, a janitor who works for Prestige Maintenance USA, say the strikes will continue until other contractors follow KBS’s example.
“Despite Target’s leadership role in the industry, one of the companies that cleans Target stores in the Twin Cities, Prestige Maintenance USA, has not taken the policy seriously,” said Salinas, who works inside a Target store. “Many workers are still forced to work seven days a week, and the company has not engaged in sincere dialogue to address issues of poverty wages and poor working conditions.”