Q&A: Love and hate for Wal-Mart

Ernestine Bassett, a cashier in the Wal-Mart store in Laurel, has undertaken the difficult task of trying to organize her fellow employees despite the company’s longstanding opposition to the unionization of its workforce. The effort landed her an invitation to the White House, where last week she joined Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to celebrate Women’s History Month and the role of women in union organizing.

You’ve worked at Wal-Mart for four years. How has your experience been there?

I love Wal-Mart. I love the family atmosphere, I love my co-workers. We’re all like a family, we all spend a lot of time together there. Sometimes I see more of my co-workers than I do my immediate family. And I like the customers. You know the customers come in, want to chit-chat, tell me about their family, their pets and whatever. I like it.

There is a case in the Supreme Court currently in which female Wal-Mart employees are suing the company over unfair treatment. Are women at your store treated differently than the men?

Yes, they are. It’s like the women are made to feel inferior. You know, the guys there seem to get all the breaks, they’re taken more seriously, they’re given more advantage.

Did something happen that led you to organize?

Yes, the way they treated their associates. You had to ask for permission to go to the ladies’ room, which was very degrading. If you stayed too long, they would page you. Just showing no respect, treating you like a child, lots of intimidation. Within a year, it was too much. It was like, we have a voice, we need to stop this!

Tell me about your efforts to organize.

It’s a battle, it’s an uphill battle. Wal-Mart is using a lot of intimidation, they’re bringing in people from Arkansas, they’re having anti-union meetings. My associates are already afraid. You know no one, especially in today’s economy, wants to lose their job but people have a lot of gripes, they see that a lot of things are not right, and [Wal-Mart is] playing on the associates’ fear. You know, [Wal-Mart is] even telling them in meetings that they could lose their jobs if they participate in this organization.

What have you accomplished so far?

Well, just talking to people and giving them a voice. Having them express their concerns about what’s going on at Wal-Mart. And the number one concern of course is a living wage. Wal-Mart’s wages are not good at all. Wal-Mart’s coming into D.C., trying to open four stores. That would be good for D.C.! It really would. But I know that they have promised to pay better wages.

How much do you make?

$10.70 [an hour].

Did you start at a lower rate?

Yes, $9.50. In order for them to come to D.C., everything needs to be in writing. D.C. really has to protect themselves. If you’re going to pay a living wage, D.C. needs to get it in writing.

What is a living wage to you?

To start out at $12.50 at Wal-Mart is good.

If you are unhappy with the pay and the treatment at Wal-Mart, could you leave and work somewhere else?

That’s always a possibility, but I’ve worked four years there. I don’t really want to start at the bottom all over again. You know, in this economy, I don’t know. [At] Wal-Mart, everyone out there works very, very hard. And it’s like the harder you work, they’re still riding you like you are not doing enough. I mean, for what they’re paying they’re getting — they really are getting their money’s worth.

[Given an opportunity to to respond to Bassett’s characterizations, Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said, “The claims by Ms. Bassett do not match the positive experience that so many other women have had at Wal-Mart. In fact, thousands of women began their careers at Wal-Mart in positions similar to Ms. Bassett and have risen into leadership roles.”

[Wal-Mart, he said, employs “more than 57,000 people in the states of Maryland and Virginia (including 600 D.C. residents) and our wages meet or exceed those offered by a majority of union and non-union competitors in the region.”]

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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