by Jeff Weinberger Dericia Charles left her native Cap Haitien for South Florida seven years ago expecting the best. A print shop worker who'd been earning a few dollars a day toiling on a low-tech printing press in virtual sweatshop conditions, she had barely been getting by in her homeland. So, determined to head from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, to one of the richest on earth, she had high hopes.
"I thought I would find very good opportunities because I love to work," Charles said through a translator, her Kreyol rolling rapidly off her tongue as the noisy Black Friday traffic started and stopped beside the Walmart Supercenter in North Miami Beach, her employer for the past six of those seven years. There were demonstrations there and in Boynton Beach on Friday, part of a bigger nationwide protest against the megastore.
"I never imagined I'd be standing on a sidewalk demanding better treatment," added Charles, who in the 50 plus years she lived in poverty-stricken Haiti had never attended a demonstration, let alone addressed a crowd of workers and supporters through a megaphone as she had today.
Poor working conditions, lack of respect, retaliation by unscrupulous bosses, unpredictable hours and wages that leave thousands of workers having to subsidize their incomes with taxpayer-funded programs like food stamps and Medicaid were just some of the grievances that Charles and the OURWalmart campaigners were demanding on a day which historically is one of most profitable of the calendar year. OUR Walmart stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart and it is comprised of current and past hourly workers at the chain store.
Charles, who recently began receiving Medicaid to deal with a cardiac issue, is one of hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers nationwide who, based on a Congressional Democrats study released earlier this year, require public assistance to make ends meet.
Our Walmart is a nationwide effort being supported by United Food and Commercial Workers. In addition to their other key demands, workers are calling on the notoriously low-paying corporate behemoth to pay them $25,000 annually for guaranteed full-time employment.
Charles, who makes $10/hr working in store maintenance, claims that her doctor had provided a letter for her boss indicating that she should be on restricted duty owing to her heart condition, but Walmart refused.
"I have to handle heavy machines. They're sending newer people to easier work. I've put in applications but they keep telling me I'll have to wait," Charles said.
A number of other workers also spoke out despite the risk of being retaliated against for doing so.
"I speak up because a lot of others are afraid to," said Paul Toussaint, another maintenance worker who's been with the company for just under six years.
"I would like to say that Walmart treats us like slaves," declared Toussaint, whose surname matches that of a hero of Haitian history, Toussaint Louverture, who led the slave rebellion leading to Haiti's independence against the French two centuries ago. "They work us as if we're five people in one."
Rafael Moreno, a dairy and frozen food worker, spoke of earning $9.15 per hour after four years on the job.
"I can't support my family on that," Moreno, who works in the Walmart Supercenter in Miami Gardens, lamented. He also noted retaliation for his organizing activity as a major concern.
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"They gave me a written warning for organizing. They say 'You're making a problem by talking to other workers,'" he said, and gave the name of his manager.
The manager he named, asked via phone for comment about the allegations, refused to identify himself as a manager and deferred to Walmart Media Relations for any input to this article. An email request for comment to Media Relations received no reply.
Joining the OuURWalmart workers in Miami was the Rapid Response Network, a local group supporting workers in Haiti who work in the supply chain of Walmart and other retailers including The Gap and Levis. While Walmart's US workers are seeking the equivalent of about $12/hr. for full time work, Haitian garment workers were awaiting word today from the Haitian government in response to their demand for 500 gourdes, or the equivalent of about $11.50 per day, considered to be the bare minimum for a family's survival. The group is seeking to unite the struggles of workers in the US and those in Haiti and elsewhere around the globe.
"The struggle of the working class is international, and once the working class recognizes that, we'll be a very powerful force," said Jan Makandal, a group member.