Widespread protest actions against Walmart’s low wages and intimidation of workers took place in all major cities across the U.S. on “Black Friday” – the sales day after Thanksgiving on which retailers rely to put their profit margins in the black.
According to the Guardian, “The biggest protest seemed to be in Paramount, California, where more than 1,500 people gathered in the streets to chant protest songs in opposition to what they say are low wages that keep Walmart workers in poverty.” Nine people were arrested for sitting in the street and blocking traffic, including three striking Walmart workers from area stores.
The protests succeeded in drawing national attention to Walmart’s poverty-level wages. According to the consulting group IBIS World, they average $8.81 an hour – which would mean working 42 hours every week of the year to earn the federal poverty level for a family of three. Walmart takes care to keep most workers working less hours than the minimum that would entitle them to company benefits.
Most customers continued with their shopping despite the pickets, but in Worcester, Massachusetts, one shopper left her cart in the aisle when she heard protesters chanting and left the store in solidarity. As a demonstrator tried to hand a flier to an employee at a cash register in that store, a reporter noticed a man who appeared to be her manager telling her not to take it or she would be fired.
A number of vociferous and courageous Walmart employees took part in the actions across the country, although the majority of protesters came from a broad coalition of community and labor activists. Those who did take a stand clearly express a new mood among Walmart’s workers, the majority of whom fear retaliation if they publicly show their support.
At the Paramount store, three Walmart employees who did not participate in the strike told The Huffington Post that they share the strikers’ concerns about low wages, lost benefits and retaliation for speaking up, but they did not strike for fear of losing their jobs. “Workers striking in Paramount who had been scheduled to work Friday said they may face retaliation but that the chance to take action was worth it. ‘People say I could just get a job elsewhere. But why?’ said Victoria Martinez, who was scheduled to work Friday at the Pico Rivera, Calif., store. ‘It will just be the same, and Walmart will get away with this. We can’t run away’.”
Josh Eidelson writes in The Nation: “one noteworthy trend is the number of places where a worker struck despite being the only one in their store to do so, often in stores with little or no prior OUR Walmart activism. One of those workers was Christopher Bentley Owen, whom I interviewed Tuesday about his experience in a mandatory ‘captive audience’ meeting he said was designed to make workers fear they could lose their jobs if they joined the strike. Owen said today that the sense that Walmart ‘wanted the managers to intimidate me’ helped spur him to join OUR Walmart, and join the strike. …
“Owen signed up with OUR Walmart on Wednesday online. Yesterday, two hours before his scheduled 5 pm shift, he called in and told a manager he was going on strike. Owen had considered also staging a one-person picket outside his store, but decided against it. ‘I was a little spooked,’ he said, ‘because thirty-one off-duty police officers had been hired’ along with ‘eight on-duty police’ for Black Friday.”
Roger Bybee reports in Socialist Worker: “A pre-dawn gathering in Milwaukee attracted more than 100 Walmart workers and supporters from labor, community organizations, and the faith community, despite bone-chilling winds outside Walmart’s northside store, which was subsidized by $4.5 million in taxpayer dollars. The store’s entrance was fenced off by temporary metal barriers and surrounded by six Milwaukee police vehicles as a half-dozen Walmart managers watched vigilantly … A Kenosha worker named Jerry, an eight-year Walmart veteran, noted that he has never enjoyed a holiday with his family during his entire time at Walmart, having to work each and every one.”
Walmart management were clearly concerned about any expression of dissent, mobilizing police at all targeted stores in an attempt to intimidate protesters and in effect their own employees. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, according to OUR Walmart, managers threw shoppers out of the store under the assumption they were there to protest.
The Nation reports: “Security at stores was excessive, even taking into consideration the sometimes chaotic scenes associated with Black Friday sales. After the morning crowd surge had come and gone, a weird mix of local police, state police and officers from the Sheriff’s department still patrolled the aisles of a Walmart in Kearny, New Jersey, occasionally communicating with store management about the presence of pesky protesters.”
The protests were largest on the east and west coasts, traditionally more union-friendly regions, and there were fewer in the mid-South. However, there were pickets at stores in Baker, Louisiana; Dallas, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Mobile, Alabama; and most Midwestern states.
Walmart’s business model recreates the impoverishment that forces workers to shop for the lowest possible prices. Profits come from the sheer volume of commodities moving through their stores – their employees are there merely to facilitate this movement and are totally disposable. The company is aggressively anti-union and anti-minimum wage and uses brutal legal and legislative muscle to grind down attempts to organize.
Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic explains: “Wal-Mart is an expert at using the weeks before union votes to stoke fear among employees about what might happen to their jobs if they choose to support the union. And in cases where those efforts proved insufficient, the company has been willing to take extreme steps. When a group of Texas butchers voted to unionize in 2000, the company responded to the only successful U.S. union drive in its history by switching to selling pre-packaged meat company wide.
“But the problem isn’t simply what’s legal – the NLRB has found many instances where Wal-Mart’s union busting behavior violated labor law. But the penalties are negligible. From 2000 to 2009, U.S. companies paid total of $36 million in fines for punishing workers over union activity. Wal-Mart alone could fork that over and write it off as the low, low price of doing business. … Wal-Mart’s labor savings helped it put unionized retail competition, such as Caldor, out of business.”
However, Walmart’s expansion throughout the U.S. and internationally is having the effect of generalizing the resistance to low pay in the retail industry. The fact that wage rates and working conditions have become the focus of a broad protest is not a one-off event but the beginning of a mass movement to reverse the erosion of the social contract in America.