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The Uncertain Future Of The Walmart Worker

Staff have had an eventful year so far: Mass store closures were announced, small pay raises went into effect, a major pro-labor legal ruling was celebrated.

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Worker groups dedicated to improving pay and conditions at Walmart have had a dramatic beginning to 2016, with a rapid succession of news both good and bad for the company's staff.

On the upside, Walmart staff have received a modest pay raise and a rare, favorable labor board ruling — without a single Walmart employee officially belonging to a union. The union-backed and independent campaigns attempting to organize Walmart staff are considering both victories, though the pay raise can also be attributed in part to a tightening labor market.

But on the flip side, the big box chain has announced it will close hundreds of stores, leading to thousands of layoffs. And the planned raise to $10 an hour for entry-level workers hired after Jan. 1 only takes effect after they successfully complete a six-month training program called "Pathways."

Some labor theorists say a company on the ropes is more vulnerable to organizing efforts by activists, but it remains to be seen what the net result of the recent events will mean for workers. With an estimated 10,000 employees affected by the store closures, the National Labor Relations Board ruling ordering the reinstatement of 16 former staff fired for participating in worker protests is a largely symbolic win. And a raise in hourly wages, while welcome, doesn't necessarily come with the steady schedules or hours that would mean a substantial difference in pay at the end of the week. (Walmart has denied that cuts in hours are related to wage increases.)

"This wage increase is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a commitment to full-time, family sustaining jobs," said Dan Schlademan, an organizer with worker group Our Walmart, in a statement.

Jess Levin, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union's Walmart campaign, similarly stressed the importance of the recent closures and inconsistent hours to workers. "[Walmart] just closed hundreds of stores, destroyed thousands of jobs, and devastated countless small communities, but now they are trying to convince America they’re giving our workers a raise?" she said in a statement. "After Walmart’s last wage increase stunt, many workers almost immediately saw their hours cut and take-home pay go down."

Our Walmart has called on the retailer to re-hire all 10,000 employees affected by the closure of 154 U.S. stores (of a total of 269 worldwide), citing "between 15,000 and 50,000 posted job openings at any given time" at Walmart and the fact that "95% of the stores slated to close this month are within 10 miles of other Walmart locations."

The store slated to close in Juneau, Alaska, is one of the 5% that is not, however, and the city is now working to help the newly jobless employees there find new work, since the closest store is in Ketchikan, 300 miles away.

The day after Wednesday's pay raise announcement, a Federal Administrative Law Judge found that Walmart engaged in systematic retaliation against workers who participated in strikes in 2013, and recommended ordering the reinstatement of 16 workers, posting legal notices in 31 stores, and scheduling employee meetings in 29 stores to inform workers of their rights to organize.

Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said in a statement that the company "disagrees with the Administrative Law Judge’s recommended findings" and "will pursue all of our options to defend the company because we believe our actions were legal and justified."

"We are focused on providing our hard working associates more opportunity for success and career growth by raising wages, providing new training, education and expanded benefit options," he said.

Colby Harris, one of the 16 fired Walmart workers the judge recommended for reinstatement with full backpay, said he participated in about a half dozen strikes between 2012 and 2014. Since being fired, he has worked for the UFCW's Walmart campaign, which he will continue to do while Walmart appeals the judge's findings. On Thursday, Harris will be in Texas, helping freshly laid-off Walmart employees look for new positions and land on their feet, he said.

And if Harris ultimately gets his old job back? “I’d go back to work and organize my store,” he said. “No question."

Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.

Contact Cora Lewis at cora.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

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