For more than an hour, business slowed to a trickle at the Family Dollar store in downtown El Paso. Chanting slogans and hoisting signs, a few dozen picketers marched in disciplined, circular formation on the sidewalk in front of the popular discount store on Stanton Street.
Organized by El Paso’s new Retail Workers Rights Committee (RWRC), the protesters demanded that Family Dollar respect workers rights, stop mistreating managers in order to avoid paying overtime and limit managers’ schedules to 52 hours per week. Staging its demonstration during peak Saturday business hours, the RWRC passed out leaflets that read: “Family Dollar Is Not Family Friendly.”
“What makes me do this protest is people don’t know their rights,” said Abel Lopez, former El Paso Family Dollar manager and RWRC member. “(Managers) don’t know the law. They’re inside the stores for 80 hours a week. They don’t have the time to investigate.”
Lopez, who was fired from Family Dollar earlier this year after more than seven years on the job, charged that budget-strapped store managers actually spend much of their time laboring as janitors, cashiers and other hourly workers who are subject to overtime provisions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
According to Lopez, store managers typically put in 60-80 hour work weeks but don’t get overtime because they are classified and paid as salaried professionals exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements.
“They’re supposed to be taking care more of the store, of the customers, and to avoid running registers,” Lopez said. Prior to the October 16 protest, Lopez said he delivered letters to the managers of all 54 El Paso Family Dollar stores that spelled out their legal rights.
Watching from inside the store as demonstrators circled around outside, a Family Dollar employee who identified himself as the manger said he was not allowed to comment to the news media. At press time, Family Dollar’s corporate spokesman had not responded to a request for comment.
Last weekend’s picket built on a RWRC campaign initiated this year to support Family Dollar managers and ex-employees like Lopez .
The complaints raised by Lopez’s group have previously surfaced against Family Dollar in other parts of the United States. For instance, in 2006 more than 1,400 former and current Family Dollar managers won $35.6 million in an Alabama lawsuit alleging FLSA overtime violations. Two years later, a federal appeals court upheld the verdict.
In El Paso, the Family Dollar struggle has become one front in an emerging border labor/community movement that targets unpaid overtime in particular and wage theft in general.
The October 16 action drew the participation of students from the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College, as well as members of the Labor Justice Committee, Border Workers Association and Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.
RWRC organizer Eric Murillo said he was “very pleased” to see a hefty contingent of young faces marching alongside “old school Chicano activists” in support of labor rights.
Said Murillo: “Essentially (youth) are the people who are going to go out into the job market , and essentially those are the people who really have a vested interest in learning about the struggle now and hopefully learning how it affects them- regardless of where they end up.”
Shalini Thomas, a young member of another new El Paso-based organization, the Labor Justice Committee, termed the issue of sub-minimum and unpaid wages in El Paso “a really big problem.”
In its first year of activities, the Labor Justice Committee has heard complaints from restaurant, construction, painting, home remodeling and especially domestic workers, Thomas said, with some committee members complaining of being offered as little as $120-$150 for 60-hour work weeks. All the cases have involved immigrant workers from Mexico, Thomas said, adding that some employers take advantage of their employees’ lack of legal knowledge and fears of their immigration status.
“(The) biggest problem here is that employers think they don’t have to pay the minimum wage,” Thomas asserted. The Labor Justice Committee has helped recover about $8,000 in back wages, she said.
On the same day as the El Paso Family Dollar protest, a group of about 10 activists staged a “short, lightening hit” in San Antonio, said Ruben Solis, founder of the Southwest Workers Union. The group picketed and passed out leaflets at a soon-to-be opened Family Dollar store in the African-American and Latino community of San Antonio’s East Side, Solis told Frontera NorteSur.
“It wasn’t open for business but we wanted to hit it because of its locale,” Solis said.
According to the veteran labor and community organizer, the Family Dollar fight is part of a broader struggle in a country where labor rights are extremely weak, working conditions increasingly precarious and wage theft a generalized violation.
Recalling how his own brother, a professional welder with decades of experience was cheated out of $1,000 by an employer, Solis said wage theft was everywhere these days.
“It’s endemic. It happens in many places,” Solis said. “Basically, owners spend the money and don’t have it to cover the pay. It’s not happening to one particular sector of workers. It’s happening across the board.”
To aid the Family Dollar struggle, Solis said a San Antonio committee consisting of members of the Southwest Workers Union, Fuerza Unida and other groups has been formed to stay on top of the issue.
The Family Dollar protest happened during the same week when local news media reported on how the Milken Institute had named El Paso as among the top ten US cities in job and wage growth.
In the past few years, the border city has experienced a capital infusion from businesses fleeing neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and an economic stimulus from the billions allocated for the ongoing expansion of the US Army’s Fort Bliss. Most recently, maquiladora assembly plant exports from Ciudad Juarez are again reported on the rise.
Despite the brisk business climate, unemployment in the border city is still above the national average at more than 10 percent.
Ironically, several pay-related calls and complaints handled by the non-profit Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project have come from workers employed in construction projects connected to the Fort Bliss expansion or from businesses relocating from Ciudad Juarez, according to staff attorney Chris Benoit.
“Where there’s boom, there’s also cutting of corners,” Benoit said. “And oftentimes the workers are the ones who lose out on that.”
For Lopez and other RWRC members, Family Dollar’s boom has come at the expense of its own workforce. Indeed, the Great Recession has been nothing but a boon for Family Dollar and its low-priced retail stores.
For the fiscal year ending August 28, 2010, Family Dollar reported steady growth and money-making. The North Carolina-based company’s nearly $7.8 billion in revenues was 6.3 percent higher than in FY 2009, while gross profit, as a percentage of sales, was calculated at 35.7 percent compared with 34.8 percent the previous year.
In FY 2010, Family Dollar paid out $78.9 million in dividends to its stockholders, an amount up from $72.7 million in FY 2009. Although the publicly-traded retailer closed 70 stores, it reported opening 200 new ones, thus resulting in a net gain of 130 outlets.
In a statement, Family Dollar credited its good fortunes on higher customer traffic and lower overhead.
“I am very proud of this performance, and I appreciate the hard work and education of all our 50,000 Family Dollar team members,” said Chairman and CEO Howard R. Levine, who earned a $5.38 million compensation package in 2010, according to Forbes.
Offering low prices on goods ranging from food (Family Dollar accepts food stamps) to Halloween toys, the publicly-traded company locates many of its stores in low income and immigrant communities. Home to numerous immigrant farmworker families, even little Hatch, New Mexico has a Family Dollar outlet. The store is built next to a pecan orchard and strategically sited on a road leading to many farmworkers’ homes.
Family Dollar’s Stanton Street store in El Paso relies on customers from Ciudad Juarez who drive or walk across the border to shop in the sister city’s downtown business district. “The economy here in El Paso depends a lot on the people of Juarez,” Lopez said.
Leading up to the October 16 protest, the RWRC took its appeal not to shop at Family Dollar directly to the residents of Ciudad Juarez. A large banner draped from the heavily-traveled Bridge of the Americas connecting Ciudad Juarez to El Paso was misinterpreted by some residents of Ciudad Juarez as a call for an economic boycott of the Mexican city, but a local television station ran a report that clarified the message was directed against Family Dollar, Lopez said.
Family Dollar’s El Paso managers, he added, are usually Mexican-Americans or Mexican immigrants, some of whom commute back and forth from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso.
The border activist said he was heartened by the outpouring of support for his cause in El Paso and places like San Antonio. “I’m glad, I’m glad,” he said. “It’s a lot.”
According to the RWRC’s Eric Murillo, the El Paso group is now reaching out to potential allies in other cities as it expands the campaign against Family Dollar’s labor policies.