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Walmart workers stage a protest for higher wages and the right to unionize. (Photo: Reuters)

'Mind-Blowing Abuse of Power': Walmart Spied on Workers With FBI, Lockheed Martin's Help

Newly released documents show retail giant used 'every deceptive tactic under the sun' to keep tabs on pro-union employees

Nadia Prupis

Retail giant Walmart enlisted the help of a private military contractor and the FBI to spy on workers pushing for a $15 hourly wage and organizing Black Friday protests in 2012 and 2013, newly released documents (pdf) reveal.

"We are fighting for all workers to be paid a fair wage and enough hours to put food on the table and provide for our families," said Mary Pat Tifft, a Wisconsin Walmart employee of 27 years. "To think that Walmart found us such a threat that they would hire a defense contractor and engage the FBI is a mind-blowing abuse of power."

A document made public Tuesday by worker organization OUR Walmart reveals company testimony to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January stating that Walmart had enlisted the help of arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor workers who were organizing for higher wages and the right to unionize.  OUR Walmart workers said they were illegally fired and disciplined for taking part in the "Ride for Respect" strike during Walmart's shareholder meeting in June of 2013.

But the surveillance had long been in progress. Walmart executives mobilized the so-called "Delta" emergency response team in 2012 when they first got wind of plans for a nationwide Black Friday worker strike. As Bloomberg explained in an investigative piece published Tuesday, "the stakes were enormous." In addition to the NLRB testimony, the new reporting states, "The details of Walmart’s efforts during the first year it confronted OUR Walmart are described in more than 1,000 pages of e-mails, reports, playbooks, charts, and graphs."

"Any attempt to organize its 1 million hourly workers at its more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. was an existential danger," Bloomberg's Susan Berfield wrote. "Operating free of unions was as essential to Walmart’s business as its rock-bottom prices."

Berfield reports:

During that time, about 100 workers were actively involved in recruiting for OUR Walmart, but employees (or associates, as they’re called at Walmart) across the company were watched; the briefest conversations were reported to the “home office,” as Walmart calls its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

[....] Walmart’s aim isn’t only to watch 100 or so active members of OUR Walmart, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a lecturer at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They are looking for the thousands who are supportive so they can intimidate them.” Walmart declined to comment on her statement.

The FBI came on the scene next, after the company heard about plans for the Ride for Respect demonstration, which brought a caravan of striking workers to Bentonville for the shareholder meeting, during which 14,000 Walmart managers, investors, and hand-picked associates joined the founding Walton family for a week of events, including an Elton John performance.

Berfield continues:

A Delta team began operations. When global security heard that members of the Occupy movement might join the protests at corporate headquarters, they began working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. The documents from the NLRB hearing don’t provide any details about the collaboration or indicate whether it was unusual for Walmart to bring in the FBI. The bureau had worked with local police forces across the country as they dealt with Occupy protesters.

“With some assistance from LM [Lockheed Martin] we have created the attached map to track the caravan movements and approximate participants,” Kris Russell, a risk program senior manager, wrote to colleagues on May 30.

OUR Walmart brought the case after Walmart allegedly retaliated against Ride for Respect strikers by disciplining 70 participants and firing almost 20 of them. Walmart said it was simply enforcing its attendance policy.

Tifft, of the group's Wisconsin chapter, said elected officials "should launch an official investigation and hold [Walmart] accountable. Instead of wasting their giant profits on every deceptive tactic under the sun to track low-wage workers going hungry, they should pay us what we earn and treat us with respect."

As the nationwide movement for a $15 federal minimum wage claims more and more victories, workers are not backing down from their plans for this year's protests.

"This Black Friday, we stand united in telling Walmart—enough is enough!" Tifft said.


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