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People curious about what is behind the Wal-Mart Black Friday strikes planned by the members of Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, (OUR Walmart) consider the story of Cayt Lawley.

We interviewed Cayt today to share her story about life as an OUR Walmart associate.
This diary was co-written by Nick Copeland and Christine Labuski

People curious about what is behind the Wal-Mart Black Friday strikes planned by the members of Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, (OUR Walmart) consider the story of Cayt Lawley. Cayt, who is 22 and has a high school education, worked for three separate Walmart stores over a total of almost three years; the most recent was in Searcy, Arkansas. Although her wages never broke $9/hour, and she believes that a manager’s refusal of her request for light duty led to a miscarried pregnancy, she loved the family vibe at Walmart almost as much as she loved serving its customers. Ironically, it was only after hearing negative things about OUR Walmart during a store training session that she researched them online. And she liked what she saw: demands for an across the board raise to $13/hour, more affordable health insurance, full-time hours, and predictable scheduling—in a word, respect.

After being an underground member for months and educating herself online about her rights as a worker, Cayt eventually “came out” to her manager, a necessary step to gain support from the organization. At first, Cayt questioned whether the $5 monthly dues was really worth it, her suspicion fueled by managers’ aggressive portrayals of unions as “greedy” organizations from whom her “money and signature” needed to be protected. Later, when angry about having been passed over for a 40-cent raise after a questionable performance evaluation, she turned to OUR Walmart for advice, which they provided. Afterwards, she trusted OUR Walmart as an extra support group in the Walmart family.

But she discovered that membership in OUR Walmart was not without risks. She began to notice extra attention from managers, who scrutinized her work for small mistakes. She was eventually fired two weeks after attending an OUR Walmart demonstration at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville this past October. Managers cite performance issues, but Cayt is certain she was retaliated against. She is now fighting to be reinstated in her previous position, and joining OUR Walmart’s call to stop retaliation against their members.

Wal-Mart claims that they provide good jobs, and paint Cayt and other members of OUR Walmart as a disgruntled minority, propped up by self-interested unions. But OUR Walmart members insist that their demands are widely shared by co-workers, many of whom are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs; Cayt herself knows several silent OUR Walmart sympathizers who remain too frightened to talk. Both presidential candidates in our most recent election promised “good jobs.” But at $7.95 per hour, the wage she was paid when she was fired, Cayt’s annual salary (assuming a 40 hour work week, a schedule that Walmart often promises but seldom delivers) amounted to $16,500—hardly a route to the middle class.

Stories like Cayt’s, not union manipulation, are behind OUR Walmart. Walmart workers belong to a society that promises its members inclusion in the middle class and social mobility through hard work. Hard-working Walmart associates find that the ladder to success is broken, and that the vast majority of Americans are stuck at the bottom rungs. These are the faces of America, the hundreds of millions of low-wage workers who feel themselves locked out of the American Dream, in an era when the wealthiest Americans are doing better than ever. OUR Walmart associates are joined by warehouse workers, hyper-exploited but invisible components of the supply chain who are also organizing for better conditions.

If, as many have suggested, Walmart owes their remarkable success to society’s failure to fully deliver on the American Dream, then OUR Walmart owes its success to the hollowness of Walmart’s promise to make that same dream available to all of their associates. The Black Friday protests do not only concern Walmart workers; they speak to the concerns of everyone struggling to earn a living on hourly wages in an increasingly unforgiving and unequal economic system, one conspicuously marked by a decline in union power, on the one hand, and the skyrocketing of CEO salaries, on the other. Labor rights issues affect not only American workers, but manufacturers throughout Walmart’s global supply chain, who are squeezed by Walmart’s extraordinary buying power to produce goods at extremely low costs. As you shop for the holidays, please remember millions of employees like Cayt, whose meager earnings and uncertain futures may make our Thanksgiving dinners and gifts less expensive, but undermine the spirit of the season.

Nick Copeland and Christine Labuski are anthropologists working in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. They are also the authors of The World of Wal-Mart: Discounting the American Dream

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