Speaking truth to power at Walmart

By Anne Burkhardt

Last week, I participated in my first ever action with Interfaith Worker Justice (I am interning with the national staff through the summer internship program) and joined a delegation to a local Walmart store. Our delegation was one of several groups who visited stores throughout Chicago. Delegations of faith leaders and advocates went with workers who were already organizing at their stores. Each delegation went to discuss a different issue (parental leave, consistent scheduling, general fair treatment…and, as always, fair wages) that had been identified by an employee in the store.

Before we left, we heard from Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a social justice lobby, and one of my favorite leaders in politics these days. She reminded us to not be scared or sit back and let other people do the work of activism for us. I knew that there was some discomfort before the action. Many folks in the IWJ network were used to being out on the ground, doing activism with their feet, but a good portion of the attendees who had joined us for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education's Congress on Urban Ministry had not – and some were nervous. Sr. Simone did a good job of reminding us what was important (and was just one of many powerful speeches we heard over the course of the conference!).

My delegation was small, but had representatives from around the country: Oakland, Nashville, Boston and Chicago. We were there with a former employee who—when she was two months pregnant—was in the store on her off day and two 32-inch TVs fell on her abdomen and leg. She was in a boot for some time and her pregnancy was elevated to high risk. It still is, two months later. She says that she filed all the appropriate paperwork for the medical/maternal leave she took; the manager of the store denies seeing any such paperwork. We went to urge the manager to reinstate her.

Our conversation with the manager of the store was difficult. He wouldn’t have spoken to us if Pastor Emily hadn’t made a beeline for his office when he poked his head out. He passed along the corporation's media relations number rather than engaging with the delegation. He claimed that he did not have the power to do any of the things we were asking. He reminded the delegation that we didn’t have an appointment, and no, we couldn’t have one, either. When we left, we were all shook up. Christine asked if we could do a prayer, so we all clasped hands and steadied ourselves.

We rejoined the rest of our friends—some 500 of us!—who were gathering outside the very store we had been within. We joined together in song and protest, hearing from some workers who testified about their experiences as employees at Walmart and the struggles they had faced as low-wage workers in the "Walmart Economy". I particularly enjoyed the variety, creativity, and passion in the handmade signs. The SCUPE folks were particularly excited about the fact that passing cars and trucks demonstrated their support with honking, waves and fists in the air; I was excited too! Folks slowed down to ask what we were doing. One woman even asked for our information so she could direct someone who she knew who had been fired by Walmart to the worker organization.

Then it was all over. We gathered once again at our DePaul and celebrated that we had put our faith on our feet and walked to the doorstep of the America's largest private employer and (literally) spoken truth to power.

Anne's reflection is part of our summer series of reflections from IWJ Interns. Anne is interning with Interfaith Worker Justice this summer.