People walk past a Wal-Mart store with a banner reading "Low prices, every day, in everything" in Mexico City April 21, 2012.
A deli manager at Wal-Mart doesn’t like how the company is being run and is calling for a change in leadership at the retail giant, but she’s not just moaning about her employer around a water cooler.
Venanzi Luna of South Gate, Calif., has taken her battle to the Web, creating an online petition that already has more than 5,500 signatures as of late Monday.
“It is time for things to change. Wal-Mart needs to take responsibility for its actions and change its leadership,” she wrote on the petition on Change.org, pointing to recent reports that the company bribed Mexican officials.
It’s unclear whether Venanzi Luna will get her wish, but her cyber tactic points to a potentially strong tool for workers to turn the heat up in corner offices across the country.
Social media and online petitions, effectively used by consumers to pressure companies to rethink rate hikes and reassess labor practices overseas, could put power in employees’ hands, said labor experts.
“All of these Internet forces are all of a sudden part of the communications currency in the world, especially in America,” said Lee Howard Adler, who teaches employment law and public sector collective bargaining and labor law at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “Even the most powerful see some need to address these.”
Having workers use the Internet to get their voices heard, he said, “could have an impact if there’s a large enough response from employees, consumers and citizens.”
Alder stopped short of saying Luna’s petition is the beginning of a movement, but he’s encouraged that “this courageous deli manager is willing to give it a try.”
Indeed, employees may need a lot of courage to talk so publicly about the top executives at the companies that employs them, especially if they’re not union members.
Wal-Mart is well known for having kept unions out of its U.S. operations, and its unclear how Luna’s petition will impact her career. Wal-Mart would not comment on the petition or Luna's future at the company, but in an earlier statement about the bribery scandal, David Tovar, a spokesman for the retailers said: “We are confident we are conducting a comprehensive investigation and if violations of our policies occurred here, we will take appropriate action."
Luna could not immediately be reached for comment.
Casie Yoder, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Making Change at Wal-Mart coalition, said the organization was approached by Luna to help her write the petition.
“Wal-Mart could fire Venanzi for her petition but that wouldn't seem to me like a smart decision on the company's part,” she said.
Calling for the ouster of top executives is not totally unusual for labor, said John Revitte, a labor professor at Michigan State University. In the last decade, he said, there have been some unions that have had employee members purchase stock so they can complain at board meetings. “But for people unconnected to unions, complaining about your employer is more rare.”
That doesn’t mean, however, a discontented rank and file that isn’t unionized has no sway when it comes to decisions made about top executives, said Kristi Hedges. Hedges, who's with leadership consulting firm The Hedges Company, has been brought in by corporate boards to repair damage or coach CEOs when there’s widespread dissatisfaction with leadership.
Companies that have leaders who don’t have the trust or respect of the rank and file often end up with low retention rates or dissension at all levels, she explained, and boards will move to address that.
“If the pattern over time is an inability to lead, it’s difficult for senior leaders to be successful,” she said.
The Internet, she added, has created a new way for workers to raise their concerns and boards aren’t going to be happy with such public displays of anger toward the top executives, potentially pressuring them to stand up and take notice.
Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute, isn’t sure such employees' Internet tactics will lead to real change in Corporate America.
“We live in a culture where shareholders are king and often shareholders can’t even dislodge CEOs,” he said. “Since employees are even lower in the pecking order I have a hard time imagining they can.”