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Est. April 5, 2002
December 03, 2015 - Issue 632

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Employment Policy? 
Company Needs To Remove
Head From  Trash Can


"Wal-Mart views its workers as indentured
servants, as chattel in so many ways. People
who are desperate for a job that pays even
as little as Wal-Mart does, are easily controlled
by the threat of losing that wage-slave job."

When it comes to its policy on handling its 1.3 million workers, Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retail department store always seems to revert to its old ways and keeps trying to see its “human resources” as some band of indentured servants.

So it was with Thomas Smith, a 52-year-old who was earning $9 an hour at the East Greenbush, N.Y., Wal-Mart, until he reportedly cashed in $5.10 worth of cans he found in shopping carts in the parking lot of the store, just across the Hudson River from Albany, the state capital. Wal-Mart claimed ownership of the abandoned cans and fired Smith for stealing company property.

Apparently, Smith was never told that he could not take the five-cent deposit cans out of the carts that he gathered up and returned to the store, his regular job. A Wal-Mart manager directed him to repay the $5.10, but he did not have the money, so he went home and took a bus (reportedly a one-hour ride) from Albany, back to East Greenbush to make the repayment.

Smith, on parole since last May, after having served his time for an armed bank robbery conviction 15 years earlier, felt he was doing a good job at the store. He told an Albany newspaper, the Times Union, “I did the right thing and stayed out of trouble. I worked hard and did a good job. I ended up getting a raw deal.”

That raw deal got Smith lots of notice across the country, through social media. Money has started coming in from individuals, by check, and by a “go fund me” account that has brought in a considerable amount for him and his family. Also, a local civil rights group, the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, is contemplating a discrimination action against the giant corporation.

As we enter the season that reminds us of the power of compassion, love, and peace, we call upon Wal-Mart to examine its treatment of its employees and particularly Mr. Smith to the job that gave him some self-respect,” said Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ). Her organization also helps ex-offenders find jobs and find their way back into their communities.

At a press conference at the center a few days before Thanksgiving, a number of organizations expressed their support of Smith and made the following demands of Wal-Mart: That he be reinstated to his job and transfer him to a store closer to his home in Albany, that he be paid loss wages from the time of his dismissal, and that the company issue an apology and retraction of the store’s claim “that Mr. Smith committed theft when he redeemed the discarded bottles and cans.”

But that brings in another aspect of the summary firing. When the ridiculous nature of the firing (redemption of a few dollars worth of thrown-away deposit cans), the company had to dig up another reason for the firing. Aaron Mullins, a company spokesman, told a local news reporter first that Smith was fired for redeeming the five-cent cans, but then said that he was fired for a “human resources” reason that he could not discuss.

One of the reasons that Wal-Mart or any company for that matter, could get away with using the lame excuse that a “human resource” matter could not be discussed is that among the 1.3 million Wal-Mart workers, there is not a single union contract. If there were a union, the Smith firing probably would not have come up as an issue at any level. Rather, it would have been resolved in negotiations between a union steward and a supervisor.

Wal-Mart sets its “labor policy” directly out of a union-busting law firm’s playbook: use every means available to crush any sign of organizing among the workers; threaten them with shorter hours and loss of their discount and the loss of any other benefit they might have; propagandize them endlessly about the evil of even speaking about a union, and fire anyone who actually tries to organize a union. Under the laws of the U.S., there is practically no penalty for corporations for violating workers’ rights.

In the U.S., there was one department, a meat department, of a Wal-Mart that unionized and the company response was to close that department. Since the company could have been charged under U.S. labor law with discrimination, it covered itself by closing all of the in-store meat departments, of which there were several. They also closed a Wal-Mart that organized a union in Canada, where workers’ rights are highly respected, unlike the U.S. of A., where it’s open season on workers like Thomas Smith.

Years ago, it was revealed that Wal-Mart was holding classes to instruct its new workers about how to apply for social service benefits like Medicaid, benefits that are paid for by the taxpayers. That’s how low the wages were and remain, and how paltry were the benefits for those who could afford to pay for them. And, the company also was reported to routinely take out life insurance policies on its workers, policies that remained in effect even after the workers left the job. It’s a direct company benefit from the deaths of workers.

Somewhere in their corporate machinations there is, in addition to the ill treatment of their workers, activity that is wrongdoing on a massive scale. Apparently, when a corporation does it (like the low cost term life insurance they took out on workers) a little bit at a time, they feel that it is not wrongdoing. When you do it on the scale of their actions, it adds up to millions or even billions of dollars that they drain from the public coffers. It is illustrative of how Wal-Mart views its workers: as indentured servants, as chattel in so many ways. People who are desperate for a job that pays even as little as Wal-Mart does, are easily controlled by the threat of losing that wage-slave job. The company knows it and keeps the workers in fear, in part by routinely firing people like Thomas Smith for any reason or no reason.

In Smith’s case, he was never informed that he couldn’t turn a few pieces of garbage into a couple of bucks, because that garbage belonged to the company. They make it up as they go along. That would not happen with a union and a union contract, which would spell out exactly how such cases are handled and such a case as this one likely would not ever end in a firing. A union contract ensures due process and provides a curb on the arbitrary nature of an unfettered management. In other words, it mitigates actions against workers by a dictatorial corporation, such as Wal-Mart in its thousands of U.S. stores.

Some have suggested that Wal-Mart find him a job at another store, closer to his home, but that’s not likely to happen. Corporations don’t apologize and don’t make restitution, unless they are forced. And, there was a suggestion by another chain department store that he might be hired there, but for now, Smith at least has the attention of many Americans and may receive enough money to carry him over until he finds another job. Checks can be sent to Thomas Smith, c/o The Center for Law and Justice, 220 Green St., Albany, NY 12202. Or, visit the GoFundMe website for Smith. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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