SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — “You can’t make people work in total darkness,” one Walmart worker told the Militant after managers at the store here demanded employees continue working after a power outage shut down the lights from midday to almost closing time Aug. 16. She was one of a number of workers at this store who refused to remain and work under unsafe conditions, and went home.
This was an important and inspiring action, pointing the way for workers to organize together to meet attacks and indignities foisted on them by the bosses.
“I felt abused, bullied and disrespected when they demanded I stay,” said another who refused to work. She said she was glad the Militant was going to cover what happened and urged the paper to headline this article, “Walmart is a modern-day sweatshop. All that is lacking are the sewing machines.”
Workers from a number of stores participated in a discussion at a Sept. 14 Militant Labor Forum in Oakland about what they can do to organize and fight the dangerous conditions like this that the bosses impose.
One participant in the forum said she had remained at the store after bosses refused her request to leave. “We have been afraid to raise our voices, because we need to work,” she said. “I’m here to find out what we can do.”
“Exposing the unsafe conditions we face is one step,” replied Betsey Stone, a Walmart worker, member of the Socialist Workers Party and the featured speaker at the meeting. “More important is the example set by the workers who stood up to the company, including fighting against attempts to give them disciplinary points.
“As this gets known, it gives confidence to more workers to stand up,” she said, “something that can be used as an example and built on.”
During the outage, bosses urged workers to wear headlamps. When the store’s supply of headlamps ran out, bosses pressed workers to use their cellphones as flashlights.
“With the headlight you could see a little ahead, but what about what was under your feet?” another worker told the Militant.
The outage hit the entire shopping center and surrounding neighborhood, not an unusual occurrence in this area where PG&E is notorious for inadequate maintenance of its infrastructure.
After about five hours, lights went on in other stores in the shopping center, but not at Walmart. After sunset, the store fell into total darkness.
When the afternoon shift arrived, bosses instructed workers to work as normal, unloading freight, palletizing and stocking. Large pallets of freight were dragged to the floor through crowded passages in the dark.
Managers threatened to give workers a “point” for being absent if they refused to work without light and went home. If workers accumulate just five points they can be fired under the company’s disciplinary rules.
“Stay another hour, the power will come back,” one boss prodded, reported another worker who decided it wasn’t safe and went home. “If I do work in the dark, rats like the dark as well,” one worker told the Militant. A rat infestation has been an acute problem at the store, drawing the attention of co-workers and shoppers alike. Workers have encountered rats at close quarters as they move boxes.
Walmart maintenance workers, without necessary training and equipment, have been asked to collect dead rodents from traps set by an exterminating company — a cost-cutting measure the bosses have used to avoid paying a pest control service to dispose of the vermin.
Workers at the San Leandro Walmart have been asked more than once to work in the dark, as have workers at the Richmond store, and no doubt others.
Participants in the forum discussed the example set by coal miners in Kentucky who have blocked railroad tracks, determined to stop bosses moving coal from the mine until they are paid for wages stolen from them when the company declared bankruptcy. Like most workers today they do not have a union, but this did not stop them from organizing themselves to stand up to this attack and to win support.