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(DV) Bliss: Wal-Mart Workers Fight Back







Wal-Mart Workers Fight Back
by Shepherd Bliss
January 17, 2006

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Three Hawaiians have sued Wal-Mart, their former employer. The class-action suit alleges that “Wal-Mart deleted thousands of hours of time worked from employees payroll records… a practice known as time shaving.” The complaint takes the world’s largest retail store to task “for its knowing and systematic failure to pay its hourly employees for all time worked.”


The original lawsuit was filed Nov. 1, 2005 in federal court in Honolulu by Tammy L. Poha, who worked from 1996 to 2000 at the Hilo store, and Moke K. Palakiko, who worked there from 1997 to 2000. It was amended Dec. 28 to include Davelyn M. Paaoao-Sako, who worked at both the Kona and Hilo stores for nearly a decade, until 2004.


“A class-action suit means that it represents all people who were similarly situated,” one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Arthur Park, explained in a telephone interview. “These three plaintiffs represent all Wal-Mart workers in the state from the mid-1990s to 2004.” The plaintiffs and Park met with this reporter in downtown Hilo Jan. 13 to tell their story. “Some current workers also wanted to join the suit,” Park noted. “But we were concerned for them.”


“Wal-Mart took advantage of us by stealing from us,” Palakiko said. “I felt hurt that they train us not to steal from them, and then they turn around and steal from us. I used to check my time, but when the checks came out I was shorted. I spoke up and they said they would fix it, but they never did. When you start questioning things, they go after you.”

“Wal-Mart was greedy,” Poha said. “We are only asking for what they took from us. We worked the hours and should be paid for it,” she added. “We are going after what is rightfully ours. We are doing this for others -- those working now and those who came before.”


“These three plaintiffs do not stand to gain much personally,” Park added. “It is the larger class of workers that will benefit from their speaking up.” Paaoao-Sako said, “I’m sure this time shaving is happening at all stores. It happened in Kona when I was there, and then in Hilo.”


“When I left the company others workers said, ‘I hope you will say something that can be heard, to get something done,’” commented Paaoao-Sako, while holding one of her five young grandchildren throughout the interview. “People work over-time and are not paid for it,” according to Paaoao-Sako. “If you question it, management asks if you want to keep your job. Lots of associates (as Wal-Mart calls its workers) cannot speak up. They walk on eggshells. The Wal-Mart attitude is that you need us, but we do not need you.”


“Our pride has been degraded,” added Paaoao-Sako. “I have seen other Wal-Mart workers sit down and cry in response to how they were treated. They rob your pride and make you feel bad.” She later added, “We are hard workers and we appreciate what we get. We are the little guys who make the company happen. But we get overlooked.”

The plaintiffs described beginning their jobs at Wal-Mart with pride, even thinking that they might eventually retire there. Paaoao-Sako, in fact, had worked for Wal-Mart for nearly a decade. She said that she was let go a month before she was to complete her ten years and thus qualify for profit-sharing and other retirement benefits.

Wal-Mart recently has lost a number of similar lawsuits for cheating its workers. On Dec. 22, 2005, a jury found Wal-Mart guilty of denying lunch breaks to 116,00 current and former California employees and ordered it to pay $172 million in damages. “Today’s verdict affirms that ‘time theft’ labor abuses are a chronic and systemic problem for Wal-Mart,” declared Andrew Grossman, Executive director of the advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch. “They’re facing more than 40 other similar suits for labor violations nationwide.”

“Our suit will probably take many years to resolve,” Park noted. “We are in the process of serving Wal-Mart. Then there will be a discovery request in which we will try to obtain Wal-Mart’s payroll records. They will fight us and we will eventually get the documents. If they did not pay what they owed their employees, we will go to trial with a jury.”

Some former Wal-Mart managers admitted to the New York Times that they engaged in time shaving. “Five former Wal-Mart managers acknowledge erasing time to cut costs,” the newspaper reports. “Victor Mitchell said that as an assistant manager in Hazlehurst, Miss., in 1997, he frequently shaved time. ‘We were told we can’t have any overtime,’ he said.”

“More than a dozen former Wal-Mart employees said in interviews and depositions that managers had altered time records to shortchange employees,” the Times article continues.

Wal-Mart denies that it engages in time shaving. “Our policy is to pay hourly associates for every minute they work,” Wal-Mart vice president Mona Williams is quoted as saying in the Times article.

“Most employees do not realize that the time shaving is happening,” Park asserted. “It happens so subtly. The vast majority of workers did not realize this was happening until they heard about it through the Times article.” Poha noted, “You never question that this might be happening. You just go on your merry way. Over the years it becomes more noticeable.”

2005 was a year of public relations disasters and damage control for Wal-Mart. Last year, Wal-Mart was taken to task by a popular film, its own workers, the courts, and the press, contributing to sagging profits.

A poll taken by Zogby International in mid-November revealed that a majority feels that Wal-Mart is bad for America. 56 percent answered that Wal-Mart “may provide low prices, but those prices come with a high moral and economic cost.” 39 percent agreed that “Wal-Mart is good for America.” The national poll was commissioned by WakeUpWalMart.com, a union-based group. It was taken before the release of Robert Greenway’s successful film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

“Between the 100,000 DVDs already out there and the 8,000 screenings worldwide, at least a million people have seen the film, and tens of millions more have been reached through all the media attention,” film-maker Greenway wrote in a Jan. 10 e-mail.

2006 opened with more trouble for Wal-Mart, including news that its former vice chairman, Thomas Coughlin, would plead guilty to defrauding the corporation and probably go to jail for a couple of years. At the beginning of last year Coughlin was Wal-Mart’s number two executive. “The allegation speaks volumes of the managerial culture at Wal-Mart,” commented Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch. “Wal-Mart is a company in turmoil.”

The Maryland legislature, on Jan. 12, passed a law that requires Wal-Mart to increase its health insurance for employees. “Wal-Mart has come under severe criticism because it insures less than half its United States work force,” according to the New York Times, “and because its employees routinely show up, in larger numbers than employees of other retailers, on state Medicaid rolls.” The closely watched legislation, passed over a Republican governor’s veto, is likely to become a model for at least three-dozen other states.

Wal-Mart also has its defenders, especially in the corporate press. “The Good Goliath” is the title of a column by John Tierney in the New York Times. He argues that “Wal-Mart has been one of the most successful antipoverty programs in America. It provides entry-level jobs that unskilled workers badly want.”

In a paper titled “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story,” New York University professor Jason Furman, former economic advisor to President Clinton and the Kerry presidential campaign, notes that the typical family saves nearly $800 per year in food alone by shopping at Wal-Mart.

Washington Post writer Sebastian Mallaby concurs, “Wal-Mart’s ‘everyday low prices’ makes the biggest difference to the poor, since they spend a higher proportion of income on food and other basics.

The struggle against Wal-Mart became a national issue that influenced electoral politics during November 2005, elections. It is likely to be an issue in numerous elections this year, in Maryland and elsewhere. In Edison, New Jersey’s fifth largest city, Jun Choi was elected the first Korean American mayor in the continental United States. “Jun Choi made Wal-Mart an example,” labor leader Mike Kinsora is quoted in the magazine American Prospect as saying. “Wal-Mart is probably the poster boy of low-wage, dead-end, low health care type jobs in America and what’s wrong with the economy.” According to the article, “Union leaders said Wal-Mart symbolized quality of life issues -- such as overdevelopment, urban sprawl, traffic, and corporate disempowerment of communities.”

“Jun Choi and others are an example of people trying to take back the control of their community from these gigantic companies like Wal-Mart who trample all over them,” Wal-Mart Watch’s Andy Grossman contends. Choi’s victory and Greenwald’s film “foretell a rising backlash against Wal-Mart that will have political consequences in 2006,” the American Prospect article notes.

Shepherd Bliss divides his time between the Big Island, where he writes for the Hawai’i Island Journal, and Northern California, where he owns Kokopelli Farm and works with Beyond Oil Sonoma County. He can be reached at: sb3@pon.net.  

Other Articles by Shepherd Bliss

* Wal-Mart Under Attack
* “The Mother We All Long For”: On Cindy Sheehan’s New Book

* Wall Street Journal Advice on Global Warming: A Perspective from the Island of Hawai’i
* Time Magazine Finally Covers Peak Oil
* Water and Wind as Dance Partners and the Warming Globe
* Chevron, Peak Oil, and China
* Volcanoes, Oil, and Prophets
* Celebrating the Holidays During our Dark Age
* Michael Moore’s Flaming Thunderbolt