Five activists were arrested at Yahoo! headquarters Monday afternoon in a protest over the firing of eleven Walmart employees who this month went on strike. The planned civil disobedience action followed an hour-long demonstration in the Yahoo! lobby; about thirty workers and supporters gathered to demand a meeting with Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who joined Walmart’s board last year.
As The Nation first reported, the union-backed group OUR Walmart is alleging a new wave of retaliation against Walmart worker-activists, with terminations or other discipline targeting at least twenty-six of the hundred-some employees who traveled to Arkansas to protest the retail giant’s June 7 shareholder meeting. Congressmen Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) and Alan Grayson both condemned the firings in Saturday comments to The Nation; Ellison, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Walmart’s actions “completely unjust and illegal.”
A Yahoo! spokesperson declined a request for comment regarding the protest and the alleged retaliation. Asked about the firings and disciplinary “coachings” this morning, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed that “our decision had everything to do with what was a violation of attendance policy and nothing to do with a specific protest.”
A few workers arrived in the Yahoo! lobby just after noon today, and told the receptionist they were there to meet Mayer. After being told they couldn’t see her without an appointment, an organizer announced that they planned to stay until Mayer became available. One OUR Walmart member told the receptionist that the firings were an emergency; another offered to meet Mayer on her lunch break. Then a larger group arrived and lined up on either side of the lobby. Standing under a purple pillar of Yahoo logos, workers held signs, locked arms and told stories about their own firings or their co-workers’. Some had their children with them; one woman declared the scene “cute” as she walked between the rows of protesters. A handful of Yahoo! employees watched from a balcony above. Then Yahoo! management declared the lobby shut down, and a staffer told the crowd that he would call the police if they didn’t leave.
“I was nervous at first when I walked in here, but I’m really calm now,” Placerville, California, Walmart employee Barbara Collins told The Nation before being arrested. Collins said she expects to be retaliated against by Walmart when she returns to work, but that “it’s amazing what happens when you’re over that fear.” Looking at her assembled co-workers from other cities, she added, “Walmart created that fear, and these amazing people that we have in our family now helped me get over it.” Collins took part in the civil disobedience along with two employees fired by Walmart, and two members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union who’ve taken leaves of absence from their jobs at Safeway to work on the OUR Walmart campaign. “You really find your backbone,” said Collins. “And it’s OK to stand for what’s right.”
After the police arrived, those activists not planning to be arrested moved their protest outdoors; the remaining five sat down on the floor. An organizer told fired worker Yvette Brown that Brown’s mother—also an OUR Walmart activist, and also fired over the weekend—had started crying outside when describing how proud she was of Brown for choosing to commit civil disobedience. At that point Brown began tearing up. “We’ve gone through many challenges in life,” she explained. “And just to have that moment where my mom definitely told me she was proud of me, that’s the first time.”
Soon after, several police officers entered, gave the five activists a final chance to leave and then had them stand up one at a time and put their hands behind their backs. One visibly winced as an officer put zip ties around his wrists; a police officer and a Yahoo! staffer both took photos of each arrest. Then the five were escorted into a police van as their co-workers on the sidewalk leafleted to passers-by, hoisted umbrellas that together read “MARISSA ACT NOW” and chanted “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!”
Over the two years since its founding, OUR Walmart has repeatedly alleged retaliation and intimidation against its members, as have allied groups organizing subcontracted Walmart warehouse workers. But the latest allegations—including nine firings and eighteen other disciplinary actions in the space of three days—are the most serious ones since 2005, when Walmart shut down a Quebec store months after workers there won collective bargaining rights.
Asked Saturday about OUR Walmart’s contention that this month’s work stoppage was an “Unfair Labor Practices Strike” protesting retaliation—a type of action that receives greater legal protection—Walmart’s Lundberg wrote, “We evaluate every situation individually, but as a general rule, the law does not protect hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are part of a coordinated union plan.”
Yahoo! holds its annual shareholder meeting tomorrow. As The Nation has reported, Mayer—arguably Walmart’s most prominent board member—has repeatedly been a target for labor protests. Organizers have sought to capitalize on the media debate over parental leave and work-life balance at Yahoo! in order to draw public attention to the conditions of lower-wage working mothers at Walmart. “I’m a single mother myself,” fired striker Marie Roberty told The Nation before today’s protest. “Working for Walmart, it barely pays anything…. So by going to her, if she’s a mother herself, she could relate to us…. We want her to at least hear us, if she could relate to us by chance.”