Friday, October 13, 2006

Courts to WalMart: You Gotta Start Giving Employees a Break

Good news on the "Solidarity, Forever" front. Yet another state court has ruled against WalMart in a class-action suit over the company's practice of forcing employees to forego rest breaks (or take them "for free").

WalMart broke Pennsylvania labor laws by forcing employees to work through rest breaks and off the clock, a jury decided yesterday in a decision plaintiffs' lawyers said would result in at least $62 million in damages. Jurors determine damages today in the class-action lawsuit, which covers up to 187,000 hourly current and former workers.

"I think it reinforces that this company's sweatshop mindset is a serious problem, both legally and morally," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for WakeUpWalMart, a union-funded effort to improve working conditions. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant is facing a slew of similar suits around the country. Wal-Mart settled a Colorado case for $50 million and is appealing a $172 million award in California. The company declined to comment yesterday because of the pending deliberations over

The Pennsylvania jury deliberated for several hours after a five-week trial. Jurors found that Wal-Mart acted in bad faith but rejected claims the company denied workers meal breaks. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, earned about $10 billion in 2004.

The Pennsylvania case involves labor practices at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores between March 1998 and May 1, 2006. Lead plaintiff Dolores Hummel claimed that she had to work through breaks and after quitting time to meet work demands in the bakery. She said she worked eight to 12 unpaid hours a month .

"One of Wal-Mart's undisclosed secrets for its profitability is its creation and implementation of a system that encourages off-the-clock work for its hourly employees," Hummel said in her lawsuit, which was filed in 2002. The plaintiffs used electronic evidence, such as systems that show when employees are signed on to cash registers and other machines, to help win class certification during several days of hearings last year

Yet another chapter in the ongoing downtrodden workers vs. rapacious behemoth saga which will continue to be played out over the next few decades. (And while I do believe that WalMart employees are downtrodden, and that the big-box stores despoil both the landscape and small town/city culture, and that WalMart is driving down quality by letting price trump it every time, WalMart does provide a lot of jobs (however terrible) and cheap goods (which we arguably don't really need is such vast quantity and array). Obviously, it's a juicy story because it involves the company that everyone loves to hate (or hates to love). But it's a really interesting story with so many threads connected to the ongoing shifts (and rifts) in our economy and culture: loss of manufacturing jobs (and a middle class existence for blue collar workers), globalization (which is, of course, both good and bad news), the religion of rampant consumerism, technology innovation (and invasion), race to the bottom pricing (in the end, who wins that race?)...

Enough: I'm not an economist - I'm just married to one. But I've worked enough lousy retail jobs in my life to know that every four hours or so, you really deserve and need a break. WalMart needs to start giving them to its folks. (Sometimes it's hard for those of us who work in jobs that don't involve a punch-card to imagine what it's like to be on one.)

1 comment:

katrog said...

Has anyone looked at IKEA? I went there for the first time yesterday and when I got out felt like I had been on a really bad airline for a really long time. Put down the 49 cent dishtowel and leave. Now!