If she could figure out how to live in her car, Janet Sparks would.
The 52-year-old makes $11.60 an hour as a front-of-the-store manager at a Louisiana Walmart and says she struggles to pay for basic necessities, let alone her $600-a-month rent.
"I'm giving it all I got, I like what I do, and yet I'm struggling so bad. This is not what it was when I started," says Sparks, who began working for America's No. 1 employer and discount store seven years ago.
Sparks belongs to a loosely knit association of Walmart employees called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart — OUR Walmart, for short. They are prodding the giant retailer to provide better wages, affordable benefits and reasonably reliable schedules for store employees nationwide. Their campaign comes not only at a time when many low-wage workers in the U.S. are struggling to make ends meet, but also as Walmart is rededicating itself to attracting price-conscious consumers like them — by holding down its expenses and guaranteeing the lowest prices.
OUR Walmart is not a labor union and lacks the right to bargain with the company on workers' behalf. The group receives some financial and technical support from the nation's largest retail workers union — the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has tried to organize Walmart workers in the past.
OUR Walmart claims about 5,000 members who pay monthly dues of $5 each.
Members learn how to stand up for themselves with store managers and about their legal protections as workers. They try to recruit fellow associates at their stores, and local groups hold meetings to discuss specific grievances. About three dozen members traveled to Walmart's annual shareholders meeting last week in Bentonville, Ark., to pass out fliers about their cause.
In the two years since OUR Walmart's creation, Walmart has twice raised the number of hours that part-time employees need to qualify for health benefits. Wage caps begun about six years ago block raises for some longtime employees in the same jobs. And some workers say the company's work-scheduling system limits their hours below what they need to qualify for benefits and produces such widely varying schedules that it's difficult to take a second job to make ends meet.
A "Declaration of Respect" that about 100 OUR Walmart members presented to the company last June calls on Walmart to offer affordable health care, create more dependable schedules and pay at least $13 an hour, among other things.
Walmart says the national average hourly wage for its full-time workers is $12.40 but declined to say what it is for part-time workers. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009.
"I have credit card debt that is unreal because I can't make it," Sparks says. "Walmart should pay a better wage."
OUR Walmart's complaints come as the company is marking its 50th anniversary in July and shaking off a recession-induced slump. Its stock is near an all-time high, first-quarter earnings beat Wall Street expectations and its U.S. stores turned in their best results in three years. But its progress has been blemished by allegations in an April New York Times article that Walmart executives bribed officials in Mexico to facilitate its expansion there.