How a few courageous workers in small-town Louisiana sparked nationwide actions demanding better wages and working conditions for those who pick, pack, stock, and sell the mega-retailer’s products.
In the small town of Breaux Bridge, La., Martha Uvalle and her co-workers at C.J.’s Seafood, a Walmart supplier, faced abuses many Americans imagine only take place in poorer, faraway countries: They were forced to work shifts of up to 24 hours, with no overtime pay; threatened with beatings if their breaks lasted too long; and, on at least two occasions, locked inside the facility to work. Some fell asleep at their workstations from exhaustion.
Uvalle had heard that there were organizations that defended the rights of immigrant workers like her. In 2011, someone had mentioned a group called the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA).
But, for a year, she held on to the number and didn’t call. Change seemed impossible.
So when Uvalle gave the NGA’s number to her feisty co-worker, Ana Rosa Diaz, it was an act of tremendous courage. Diaz then actually called the NGA to report the working conditions at C.J.’s.
“Apart from the fact that he [general manager Michael LeBlanc] screams at us, he humiliates us all the time, apart from the fact that we were being made to work these excessive hours, this year the supervisors blocked the doors to the plant so we couldn’t take breaks,” Diaz told YES! Magazine of her C.J.’s experience. “One supervisor threatened to hit us with a shovel. And finally the thing that pushed us over the edge was that the employer threatened our families if we reported him.”
The workers’ action, and a subsequent investigation of C.J.’s by the U.S. Department of Labor, was like a first spark falling on a vast, dry field. The actions at C.J.’s Seafood helped inspire the recent strikes and walkouts in Walmart warehouses and stores, where workers had already been struggling to organize. The walkouts have now spread to 28 stores in 12 states, according to the New York Times.
Several groups of workers around the country have announced a nationwide call to arms, including employees of Walmart suppliers in Illinois, California, and the small seafood town of Breaux Bridge. Many are calling it the first strike in Walmart’s 50-year history.
The demands? That Walmart improve working conditions and wages for the company’s employees, and negotiate better protections against exploitative practices by companies like C.J.’s that supply Walmart’s products.