Today, the union-backed Our Walmart campaign will hold demonstrations across the country calling on Walmart managers to reverse disciplinary actions against 35 workers in nine states who participated in Black Friday protests against the retailer. Our Walmart will also add claims of illegal retaliation against the workers to an existing case filed with the National Labor Relations Board in October. One of the workers being added to the case is 26-year-old Kiana Howard of Sacramento, California. This is her story, edited for length and clarity, as told to Mother Jones:
My mom worked for the state legislative office for about 17 years and then she got laid off. My dad was in our life at the beginning, then he wasn’t around. Still, we have a big family and I had a pretty good life growing up, although I grew up in East Sacramento, in the ghetto. I didn’t graduate from high school because I couldn’t pass the math part of the exit exam. I did go back in 2013 and get my diploma. I was screaming and crying. I was so happy.
About a week later, I started working at the local Walmart. I love working around people and having conversations while ringing them up. You could be having a bad day and one customer in line says a joke and changes your whole day. My coworkers there were like family. We took care of each other because we were all going through the same situation. The managers, on the other hand, they don’t give a damn about us.“I live an hour away. I don’t have a car. I have to catch the bus and light rail every day. My schedule was all over the place.”
I started off at $8.40 an hour. Then California raised the minimum wage, and I got my yearly raise, which put me up to $9.80. But the most hours I could get in any week after picking up extra days and taking extra shifts was 36. After paying rent and utilities, I was barely scraping by. I was on welfare, getting $300. When they cut that off, I really started struggling. And then they cut my food stamps down by more than half, to $136, so I started having to spend money on food. I went to food banks to make sure I fed my seven-year-old son.
I live an hour away. I don’t have a car. I have to catch the bus and the light rail every day. My schedule was all over the place. Some days I would have to be at work at 5:30 in the morning, and then some days I would work from 8 p.m. to midnight. I was tired all the time. It was just madness. Especially because there’s no buses that run after 10 p.m.
Sometimes coworkers would give me rides home, but sometimes they would be like, “Oh, I can’t go that way, I don’t have the gas.” And I didn’t have gas money for them. Other times I would get on Facebook and ask people to give me rides.
Or there was this dating website called Tagged. I would write on my status: “Could anybody give me a ride home? Stranded at work.” And then people would message me. “Well, what time are you off?”
Some of the guys were people that I knew. Other guys I didn’t know. A lot of times I was scared but I had pepper spray and I was ready for whatever. I just had to make sure I got home. I was not spending the night at Walmart.“I missed three days because my son was sick, and I was late three days. They hold that against us for a whole year.”
At the time, I was trying to get promoted to customer service. The manager kept telling me she was going to pick me, but then she takes somebody who has been at Walmart for a month and puts her there instead because she hadn’t missed any days. But she doesn’t have a child like I do. I missed three days because my son was sick, and I was late three days. They hold that against us for a whole year, and I feel like that’s just too long.
I actually started applying at different jobs. I applied at Burlington Coat Factory, Macy’s, Sears. But I just wasn’t getting calls back from those people. I just kind of gave up and kept working at Walmart.
Around August of last year, I’d had enough and put in an availability change with my supervisor. I told them I could only work between 5:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. That way I could get home to my son. People who had worked there for years told me, “Oh, they are going to cut your hours back for a while, and then you will get them back again.” But they cut my hours back—to just 23 a week—and they kept them cut back. It went on for a good month or two. That’s one reason I decided to join Our Walmart.
I feel like we were overworked and underpaid. When my customer service manager, who is in Our Walmart, told me we are going to be fighting for $15 and full time, I just felt like it needed to be done. A lot of associates were like, well, isn’t that too much for Walmart? I’m like, “No, dude! This is the richest family in America! What do you mean that’s too much? Really?” Walmart, I call it the devil’s palace. That’s how I feel.
On Black Friday we went on strike. The organizers picked us up in a white van and drove us to a picket at the Rancho Cordova store. It was me and a couple of other Our Walmart people. They had balloons; they tied them on our wrists. They had posters. And we stood out there for a minute, we talked, and we had people get on the mic and speak. We had a DJ out there. It was like a little party. I did an interview on the news.“They pulled me off the register and brought me in the office. It was like, ‘You went on strike for Black Friday.'”
Then we stated marching. They had me and my son in the front. We were chanting and singing and people were jumping and dancing. Then the police came. The people that got arrested, they were sitting down in the street. Santa Claus got arrested as well. They didn’t put handcuffs on Santa Claus, though. We took lots of pictures. It was good. I felt great. Everybody was like, “I seen you on the news!”
They retaliated on January 13, which was the day I got fired. I had a four-hour shift. Thirty minutes before I was about to get off, they pulled me off the register and brought me in the office. It was like, “You went on strike for Black Friday…” I wasn’t listening because I was upset. She said it counted as my fourth unexcused absence and that rolls over into me being terminated. I signed my papers and I gave her my badge and my vest and I left.
Since then, it has been hard. Our Walmart is going to help out with the retaliation fund, but that only lasts six months. With my last check I was able to pay my rent, but I can’t do laundry, I can’t pay any bills. I ran out of food and I had to go to the food bank once again. I feel like I’m gong into a depression. I just try to keep myself humble, because my son needs me. I can’t show him that I’m going through a lot right now.
Some employees don’t want to join Our Walmart because they don’t want to be in a predicament like I am. But I know they believe we’re fighting for a good cause. I’m just trying to stay prayed up and hope for the best.