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Strikes Against Walmart Lead to Legal Action

 

Discrepancy in status of Walmart heirs and Walmart employees leads to strikes against Walmart. (Bagely)

This cartoon by Pat Bagely was published on November 19, 2013 and refers to the poor treatment of Walmart workers, as well as shows support for those who went on strike due to these conditions. On of the most famous strikes occured on November 29, 2013 by workers at Walmart because it is notoriously anti-union, doesn’t provide healthcare to about half of their workers, and does not adequately pay their workers (Weissman). Sixteen people were fired from their jobs at Walmart for striking, but an administrative judge ruled that the workers be allowed back and compensated for their time (Malcom). Walmart has cited the laws created which rule strikes illegal in the National Labor Relation Act in order to justify its actions and is still fighting a legal battle to this day (Malcom).

In this cartoon, there are two juxtaposing sides. One, labelled “Walmart Heirs”, depicts a clearly affluent woman named Christy auctioning off a painting of a can of soup. In order to understand this image, one must first know who “Christy” is.  Christy Walton is the widow of John T. Walton, one of sons of Sam Walton (the founder of Walmart)  (“Christy Walton”).  As of today, she is currently one of the wealthiest women in the world (“Christy Walton”).  What further establishes the idea of providence on this side of the cartoon is the specific painting being referenced. The cartoonist is alluding to the painting by the famous artist Andy Warhol (his name can be seen scrawled under the image of the can of soup) titled Campbell’s Soup Cans. This painting last sold for 11.7 million dollars (Heinrich). Clearly, the cartoonist is attempting to represent the amount of wealth linked to the Walmart brand.

The other side of the cartoon, labelled Walmart employees, stands in stark contrast to the left side of the cartoon. It depicts a disheveled woman in a break room picking through a bin labelled “food donation for hungry fellow workers”. In her hand is a can of what looks to be Campbell’s soup. This is clearly a commentary on the inadequate pay for Walmart workers, because it is suggesting that they can barely afford a can of soup. Additionally, the security camera conveys the idea that the workers are constantly under surveillance and have little room for error despite inadequate pay and awful working conditions. The humor in this cartoon is clearly derived from the wealth discrepancy between the two sides of the cartoon. While on one hand, the Walmart heirs are capable of possessing a painting of a can of soup worth 11.7 million dollars, Walmart employees are barely able to afford an actual can of soup, which are worth approximately 2 dollars. Because this cartoon was published in the midst of the Walmart strikes, it is an expression of the opinion that workers went on strike for good reason, and deserve to have their needs met.

While it is easy to understand the cartoon at a surface level by ascertaining that Walmart heirs are rich and Walmart employees are poor, it is beneficial to know how these conditions came to be and why they were eventually met with such discontent. One aspect which contributed to these feelings is Walmart’s continuous anti-union sentiment. For many years, Wal-Mart has taken a fiercely antagonistic stance towards organized labor, keeping its stores union free by using every ounce of leverage Congress has given employers — so much so that, in 2007, Human Rights Watch called the company “‘a case study in what is wrong with U.S. labor laws.” (Weissman).  Walmart kept its workers in constant fear of joining unions, and was not afraid to take extreme actions in order to keep it that way. One example of this is when a group of Texas butchers voted to unionize in 2000, the company responded to the only successful U.S. union drive in its history by switching to selling pre-packaged meat company wide (Weissman). No more butchers.

As a result of this anti-union sentiment, Walmart has managed to keep pay and working conditions less than ideal. The median retail worker for a large chain earns $14.42 an hour, but independent analysis pegs the figure much lower for Walmart, closer to $9 (Hiltzik). This is not a living wage. Across the country, many employees of Walmart were living at or below the poverty line. In 2009, Ohio officials disclosed that more than 15,200 Wal-Mart employees in the state were receiving Medicaid, and 12,700 were on food stamps (Hiltzik). In 2013, a company executive disclosed that more than 475,000 of its employees earned more than $25,000 a year (Hiltzik). Unfortunately, this means that half of a million people were earning wages which put them below the poverty line.

In response to their treatment by Walmart, employees gathered together to form OUR Walmart, an employee advocacy group focused on pressuring Walmart to improve pay and working conditions (Eidelson). When workers went on strike on November 29, 2013, sixteen employees were eventually fired due to their participation in the strike (Malcom). Upon investigation, it was found that Walmart’s actions against striking employees was a direct violation of labor laws (Malcom). This reveals a direct correlation to the cartoon “Not a Good Place to Sit” by John Knott. In both cases, an issue was brought to the National Labor Relations Board due to strikes caused by inadequate pay and bad working conditions. Because of the legislation set up in the era of the John Knott cartoon in response to the General Motors strikes, it was ruled that Walmart was not legally allowed to fire employees simply because they were striking (Malcom). Had the employees been subject to the laws presented by Texas Senator Dies in the 1930’s, they would have been fired without dispute. Because the laws have changed since then, strikers are protected in the way of employment and felony charges. However, Walmart is still trying to find loopholes in the National Labor Relations Act in order to justify their actions (Malcom).  As a result, the legal battle between Walmart and its employees continues to this day.

In Conclusion, this cartoon is a show of support for those workers who went on strike and continue to fight Walmart in court. It points out the clear disparity between the owners and the employees of Walmart, and alludes to much deeper issues. Finally, it provides a direct correlation between the labor laws established in the late 1930’s and those which we have today, and how they aid or harm workers when they go face to face with an extremely powerful company such as General Motors or Walmart. One day, we may see the fault in actions taken against workers which have time and time again resulted in discontent and copious amounts of legal work. This shows that issues we had more than half a century ago are still unresolved and need to be seriously reconsidered if we are to look towards a more desirable future for our nation’s workers.

 

Bagely, Pat. “Walmart Welfare Queens.” Cagle Post. Cagle, 19 Nov.
2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2017.

“Christy Walton.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Jan. 2017. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Heinrich, Will. “$71 Million Can’t Be Wrong! ‘Andy Warhol Colored Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at L&M Arts.” Observer. Observer, 01 June 2011. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.

Hiltzik, Michael. “Wal-Mart’s Raise Underscores the Poor Condition of Most Low-wage Workers.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.

Eidelson, Josh September. “Walmart Workers Plan ‘Widespread, Massive Strikes and Protests’ for Black Friday 2013.” The Nation. The Nation, 29 June 2015. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

Malcolm, Hadley. “Judge Rules Walmart Unlawfully Fired Workers on Strike.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 22 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

Weissmann, Jordan. “Who’s Really to Blame for the Wal-Mart Strikes? The American Consumer.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

 

Not a Good Place to Sit

 

“Not a Good Place to Sit” (Knott)

The cartoon Not A Good Place to Sit by John Knott refers to the Sit-Down Strike Law proposed by Texas Democrat Senator Martin Dies and its continuation within Texas, which made it a felony for workers to perform sit-down strikes. Sit-down strikes are a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at factories or other centralized locations, take possession of the workplace by “sitting down” at their stations. (Encyclopedia Britannica) These strikes occurred throughout America in the 1930’s as a result of unsafe labor conditions and inadequate pay. (Encyclopedia Britannica) The cartoon is a supplement to an editorial published in the Dallas Morning News titled Texas vs. Illegal Strikes published on April 7, 1937.

The cartoon itself is visually simple. It depicts a prickly pear cactus with the words “sit-down strike law” written on it. The cactus is growing out of the center of Texas. The humor in this cartoon can be found through the use of the cactus because if can be interpreted in two ways. At the most basic level and without knowledge of the sit-down strike law, it is obvious that Texas, a place with an abundance of cacti, is not a comfortable place to sit. Additionally, because the cactus is specifically a prickly pear, the name adds to the idea that Texas is inhospitable and prickly. It also strengthens the link to Texas because the prickly pear cactus has a long association with Texas and other southern states, and was even named the official state plant of Texas in 1995. (Cain) On a deeper level, it is clear that the cartoon is referring to the sit-down strikes and legislation taken against them at the time in the state of Texas. It is specifically referring to Texas because Texas legislation took the national sit-down strike law one step further. This made it, quite literally, more dangerous to “sit” in Texas than in other places in the United States.

Sit-down strikes were met with such intense opposition due to their ability to render huge businesses entirely helpless. They effectively prevented their employers from moving production to other locations because the strikers would need to be physically moved in order to continue production (Encyclopedia Britannica). Furthermore, this form of protest prevented their ability to bring in “strike breakers” (Encyclopedia Britannica). These were people brought into the company to replace the workers on strike alleviated pressure on the companies being protested against (Encyclopedia Britannica). Because sit-down strikes made it impossible for companies to get back on their feet without adhering to the strikers’ wishes, they were extremely controversial throughout the United States.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the first American union to use the sit-down strike (White). On December 10, 1906, at the General Electric Works in Schenectady, New York, 3,000 workers sat down on the job and stopped production to protest the dismissal of three fellow IWW members (Authors of History.com). A decade later, the United Auto Workers staged successful sit-down strikes in the 1930s, most famously in the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937 (Authors of History.com).  GM argued that the strikers were trespassing and got a court order demanding their evacuation; still, the union men stayed put (Authors of History.com). GM turned off the heat in the buildings, but the strikers wrapped themselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down (Authors of History.com). On January 11, police tried to cut off the strikers’ food supply; in the resulting riot, known as the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) took over the adjacent Fisher Two plant (Authors of History.com). On February 1, the UAW won control of the enormous Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory. GM’s output went from a robust 50,000 cars in December to just 125 in February. Despite GM’s enormous political power, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy refused to use force to break the strike.
Though the sit-ins were illegal, he believed, he also believed that authorizing the National Guard to break the strike would be an enormous mistake. “If I send those soldiers right in on the men,” he said, “there’d be no telling how many would be killed.” (Authors of History.com) As a result, he declared, “The state authorities will not take sides. They are here only to protect the public peace.” (Authors of History.com). Meanwhile, President Roosevelt urged GM to recognize the union so that the plants could reopen (Authors of History.com).  In mid-February, the automaker signed an agreement with the UAW (White).  Among other things, the workers were given a 5 percent raise and permission to speak in the lunchroom. A wave of sit-down strikes followed, but diminished by the end of the decade (White). This was due to legislation proposed by Texas senator Dies, which led to the courts and the National Labor Relations Board holding that sit-down strikes were illegal and sit-down strikers could be fired (“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes”).

The editorial Texas vs. Illegal Strikes focuses on the legislation passed specifically in Texas in order to take the sit-down strike law a step further (White). The national anti-sit-down strike law had already been passed, but the Governor of Texas, James Allred, wanted to make sit-down striking a felony (White). This was a generally agreed-upon stance in Texas, so when the Welmert bill to make sit down strikes a felony was proposed, it was immediately and unanimously accepted by the Texas Senate (White).

Although this legislation was widely supported by Texans, it caused others to become fearful of being charged as felons for past actions. One of the most prominent dissenters of this legislation was John L. Lewis,  the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s (White). At the time, Lewis was attempting to organize the vast Texas Oil Industry and was worried that his unionizing activities would be stopped if he were to be charged for organizing any sort of sit-down strike.

The growth of the CIO was phenomenal in steel, rubber, meat, autos, glass and electrical equipment industries (White). In early 1937, Lewis’ CIO affiliates won collective-bargaining contracts with two of the most powerful anti-union corporations, General Motors and United States Steel (White). General Motors surrendered as a result of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, during which Lewis negotiated with company executives, Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan, and President Roosevelt (White). U.S. Steel conceded without a strike as Lewis secretly negotiated an agreement with Myron Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel (White). The CIO gained enormous strength and prestige from the victories in automobiles and steel and escalated its organizing drives, now targeting industries that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) have long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products (White).

Harvey C. Fremming, a colleague of Lewis in Texas, demanded that Governor Allred look into Lewis’s activities and exonerate the CIO organizers completely (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).  This was based on the grounds that the CIO had only fostered sit-down strikes in states other than Texas, and should therefore still be allowed to operate within Texas (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”). Lewis was never charged with as a felon, but the  entire CIO group was expelled from the AFL in November 1938 and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with Lewis as the first president (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).

In conclusion, this cartoon is a commentary on the sit-down strike law and the turmoil it caused in Texas. It shows how the Texas government caused sit-down strikes to become almost non-existent due to legislation passed which made such strikes felonies. It clearly shows that this legislation made it exceedingly dangerous to attempt to perform a sit-down strike. In all its simplicity, the cartoon fully conveys the prickly climate of Texas at the time and all the turmoil that would come out of a group of workers simply wanting to be paid a decent wage. Though this seems ridiculous, echoes of this time are still heard today and these issues continue to fester in the broken labor force of America.

Works Cited:

“ALLRED AND PEERY AGAINST SIT-DOWNS.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 40. Apr 04 1937. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2017 .

The Authors of History.com. “Sit-down Strike Begins in Flint.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Cain, Delman. “Prickly Pear Cactus, Our State Plant.” Native Plant Society of Texas. Native Plant Society of Texas, 03 Aug. 2015. Web. 2 Jan. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Strike.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

Knott, John. “Not a Good Place to Sit.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 7 Apr. 1937: 6.America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 7 Apr. 1937: 6. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

White, Ahmed A. “The Depression Era Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law.” Seton Hall Law Review 40.1 (2010): 1-82.