Walmart’s Summer of Discontent Explodes in Black Friday Strikes

Cecilia Garza
Yes! Magazine / News Analysis
Published: Friday 23 November 2012
Unsafe working conditions, poverty-level wages, a rise in already expensive health care premiums, and retaliation against workers’ organizing have encouraged many to join the strike instead of clocking in for the annual shopping holiday.
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This Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year will also be the busiest day for labor organizing, as Walmart store associates and community supporters spend their Thanksgiving holidays on the picket lines.

Organizers announced that last week’s walkouts at Walmart locations in California, Texas, and Seattle were the first wave of an expected 1,000 protests across the country leading up to and on Black Friday. The public can expect strikes and protests in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., as well as walkouts in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Minnesota, among other states.

Over the past year, groups including Warehouse Workers United, United Food & Commercial Workers, the National Guestworker Alliance, and OUR Walmart, a union-backed organization founded by Walmart workers, have come together to confront Walmart. Unsafe working conditions, poverty-level wages, a rise in already expensive health care premiums, and retaliation against workers’ organizing have encouraged many to join the strike instead of clocking in for the annual shopping holiday.

Worker discontent has been mounting since June, when guestworkers at a small seafood supplier for Walmart—immigrants in the U.S. on temporary work visas—walked off the job at their Louisiana plant and brought attention to labor abuses down the Walmart supply chain. Marches in California and Chicago for Walmart warehouse workers followed soon after.

One of the biggest concerns of workers and labor activists organizing actions for Black Friday is wealth inequality within the Walmart company. According to a report by the Huffington Post, a low-level Walmart employee averages $8 an hour and cannot expect to receive a pay raise until after six years of committed employment. After six years, the pay raise would bring that worker’s pay to $10.60 an hour or $22,048 a year, still below the national poverty line for a family of four in 2012. Stagnant low wages have forced many Walmart employees onto government assistance to help them provide for their families, an assistance that can seem unnatural when you are employed.

This poverty is not shared equally across the company. In 2011 Walmart’s net income was $15.7 billion. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, the net worth of the Walton family—the descendants of Walmart founders Sam and Bud Walton—totaled $89.5 billion in 2010, as much as the bottom 41.5 percent of U.S. families combined.

A look at the lives of Walmart workers

Walmart workers from every corner of the United States are speaking out about the challenges of making a living while working for the company.

Dan Hindman has worked at a Walmart near Los Angeles for four years. The former employee of the month, who makes $9.80 an hour, told CBS News he is scheduled to work on Black Friday but does not plan to show up. Hindman’s hours were cut to 15 hours a week after he joined a group of Walmart employees who favor unionizing. This cut resulted in him losing custody of his four-year-old son.

"It's the biggest retailer in the world, and you can't help me provide for my son?” Hindman said.

In Secaucus, New Jersey, protestors will be doing more than just picketing. Sam Talbot, an organizer for the Occupy Wall Street labor alliance project, 99 Pickets, said he expects more than 100 people from various factions of Occupy Wall Street to participate in an action at the Secaucus Walmart Supercenter. They plan on bringing Thanksgiving dinner to employees on Thursday evening during Walmart’s first sale of the season. The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a radical marching band and dance troupe, will be joining Occupy’s Guitarmy in the store’s parking lot, along with other supporters of the workers.

Starting at 5 a.m., just in time for the next big sale, organizers will hand out stickers pledging support for Walmart workers to customers. Talbot explains that his group is doing this for workers all over the country, who will be spending their Thanksgiving stocking shelves even while they rely on food stamps to eat.

“It takes a lot of bad treatment to generate that kind of response in our country,” said Frank Pinto, an organizer for protests in West Sacramento and a union leader at the University of California. “The least that people can do is honor the people who are risking their own jobs to do this and not cross picket lines.”

Throughout the day on Friday, protestors at Walmart stores around the country, including those in Secaucus and West Sacramento, will be dropping off letters to management stating the concerns of the workers and of the communities where those stores are located. Pinto says his family will be joining the picket line on Friday after their Thanksgiving celebrations, along with many other families with connections to Walmart and to the labor rights movement.

Challenging Walmart’s business model

On November 19, David Tovar, Walmart’s vice president of communications, appeared on CNN to dismiss the expected actions. He urged viewers not to believe everything in a union press release. Meanwhile, the company has shown measures of damage control by holding mandatory meetings with employees to discourage organizing on Black Friday. The move suggests that not everyone in Walmart’s management is quite as dismissive toward the action as Tovar implied.

Walmart is no stranger to anti-union tactics and worker suppression. In the past they have gone as far as shutting down entire stores to stop workers from joining unions.

While change may not come right away, the protests could damage Walmart’s brand name and put a dent in its annual sales. That suggests that cutting costs by underpaying workers might not be such a great business model, after all. Most important, it also has the potential to inspire other Walmart workers and continue the accelerating wave of organizing among Walmart workers over the past few months.

Cecilia Garza wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.



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ABOUT Cecilia Garza

Cecilia Garza is a regular writer for Yes! Magazine.

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20 comments on "Walmart’s Summer of Discontent Explodes in Black Friday Strikes"

mcrider4life

November 26, 2012 1:10pm

I don't shop at Walmart and I am trying to get my husband on the bandwagon. I know they treat workers, especially women like second class citizens. If you want to get even more irate, watch the documentary on Walmart on topdocumentaryfilms.com. They are predators and force the workers onto government assistance while they continue to net billions. I will pay more and drive farther so I don't have to support their disrespect for workers and the corporate greed of the Waltons. China workers are treated even worse. A manager in charge of the Mexico and Honduras operations went to Walmart about worker abuse and for his efforts, he was fired. The only reason Walmart continues to make billions is because consumers want cheap products. What happened to supporting our local economy and local businesses? Even though their prices are higher, I still shop them because they are my friends and neighbors and they put money back into the community. Walmart's charity amounts to crap. One year workers gave over $50 million dollars to help other employees in crisis such as storms, hurricanes, fires, etc. Guess how much Walmart gave? #$6,000. How noble of them? Thank you workers for standing up for your rights. You should be able to have benefits and support your family without having to go on public assistance. Keep up the good work and hopefully one day all workers will be union and they will be forced to treat employees with respect and dignity.

belleville

November 24, 2012 4:48pm

I believe $8/Hr starting pay might be considered fair, but I believe that anyone that has stuck out the first 6 months of on the job training should get a good raise, (Maybe to $9/Hr). Then anyone that has gone through the 1 year anniversary, should get another raise to say$9.50/Hr. Then when an employee has been with the company for 2 Yrs, they should be making at least $10.50/Hr. and $.75/Yr pay raise thereafter, such as after 3yrs=$$11.25, after 4yrs= $12./Hr, after 5yrs$12.75/Hr, after 6yrs=$13./Hr, after 7yrs=$13.75/Hr, after 8Yrs=$14.50/Hr. and the cost of living raise thereafter or approx. 3%. Seems fair to me. God Bless the Middle Class, and those striving to get into it.

Kalmbach

November 23, 2012 5:55pm

This is why I shop at Dominick's or Jewel, both UFCW chains. Never had a problem with their prices, either.

dregstudios

November 23, 2012 5:43pm

Is nothing sacred? Last night and today proved the holidays have slipped away from the general public and been completely bastardized by Big Business. The traditional meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas both have been diluted by mass consumerism. Read more about the War on the Holidays and American Values being waged from the buildings of Wall Street at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-war-on-thanksgiving-one-t... where one Turkey gets his revenge for encroaching on Thanksgiving this year!

Edward Craig

November 23, 2012 4:46pm

I'll shop at WalMart when I can feel comfortable in their stores.

Ron in NM

November 23, 2012 4:07pm

I see a number of people are saying, "don't but at Walmart," and I assume that people who say that have realistic alternatives. I live in a small city in southern NM. When I moved here, there was an Albertson's, and though their prices weren't the cheapest, I shopped there because I didn't want to buy at Walmart. (When I lived in Santa Fe for 30 years I had several alternatives, so didn't shop at Walmart more than once or twice in a whole year.) Now there are only two remaining food stores in town, the Walmart Super Center and a Lowe's store, which doesn't carry some of the organic products that I can buy, believe it or not, at Walmart. And the prices of everything else is about the same, but frankly, sometimes the produce at Walmart is in much better shape than what I can find at Lowe's. In addition, I live on the southern outskirts of the city, and the Lowe's is on the north side. So, does anyone think I'm going to drive 16+ miles further just to get a couple of gallons of Silk Soymilk?

Believe it or not, Walmart does carry some organic items. When I lived in Santa Fe, I usually bought at Wild Oats. I don't have that option now. When I have business in the city, or on the north side, then I stop at Lowe's to buy some items, but I buy at Walmart because it's the only practical alternative for me. I'm retired, and live on a fixed income of a pension and SS, so I can't afford to waste a lot of money on gas just to avoid shopping at Walmart.

Unfortunately, this is happening in many small cities and towns across the country. Walmart moves in, wipes out the competition till there's few choices about where to shop.

If you live in an area where you have choices, or you have unlimited income and can travel from city to city to do your shopping, bully for you. But don't just tell people to stop buying at Walmart, because most of us who shop there do so because it's either the only choice, or because it would cost too much to travel out of our way to shop somewhere else. We all know what Walmart stands for - unlimited greed among those at top - but we have to live within our own budgets too.

cycle3man

November 23, 2012 2:57pm

@ Mr Reality I assume you're a walmut company shill.

Mr reality

November 23, 2012 2:41pm

If the poverty level is so important then why doesn't the government increase minimum wage? oh yea all the prices would go up and it would make the increase irrelevant, and then there would be less to give to someone that isn't at minimum wage that has been around for a few years... hmmm. what to do? not too mention the middle class can't afford higher prices as it is....
In a competitive environment Walmart isn't going to increase wages if other retailers don't.
I know many people that work for Walmart and they get pay increases every year.
If walmart isn't breaking any laws then how can we complain?
The walmart in my town has been around for about 18 years and the small business's are doing just fine, actually even better than before... because the store actually helps keep money in the area and attracts people outside our city and local people make less trips to larger city centres...
I'm tired of walmart being blamed for being good at what we all love so much... capitalism(the american dream on steroids)
the real problem is our fraudulent monetary system... walmart is just another business... they're just the biggest... we all live with invisible chains... who's holding the reins The banksters...
everyone wants more for less.. that's what walmart does fills a demand.
look at what happend in the american auto industry... wages went up benefit and pensions were awesome!!! the the government had to bail them out... great business model....
Walmart people aren't the only people on food stamps
btw If I owned a business and someone walked out on me... there would be consequences....

Goya61

November 23, 2012 7:33pm

In reply to "Mr. Reality":
"....they get pay raises every year."

So, you consider .25 and .75 "raises" a raise? Are you insane? I personally know this hideous "business model" is permeating many low-skilled and high-skilled, blue-collar industries all over USA. You and your ilk must be so proud. Shame on all of you for your cruel capitalistic greed. How do you live with yourselves at night? Only people like you should be treated like this! You've earned it outright with all of your evil and deceit.

Kalmbach

November 23, 2012 5:59pm

@ Mr. "Reality" (airquotes fully intended)

"In a competitive environment Walmart isn't going to increase wages if other retailers don't."

Then why do a number of successful retailers pay their employees more and don't screw them over on hours?

dwdallam

November 23, 2012 5:46pm

@Mr reality

First let me say that your ignorance about how democracies work is astounding. For instance, you said: "If walmart isn't breaking any laws then how can we complain?"

Well, we can complain the same way we complained about slavery, women not being able to vote, and child labor--all legal at one time.

Ron in NM

November 23, 2012 4:30pm

Mr. REALITY:

I have to wonder where you live. I've only lived in my retirement location for a few years, but even within that time I've seen many small businesses go out of business: furniture stores, stationary stores, small clothing shops, small computer gaming stores, etc. I have to feel that the local Walmart Super Center was responsible for the demise of many of them, maybe all.

It's hard for small businesses to compete with Walmart's prices, since they can under-price their products; after all, they have the depth and they're certainly saving a lot on employee salaries.

"Small businesses are doing fine," you say. Really hard to believe. If so, your experience in your place of residence is extraordinarily different from what is seen in most locations Walmart has invaded.

I don't think all Americans are in love with the American dream on steroids. Witness the last general election, and the Occupy movement. Seems to me the 99% are getting restless. And your equation of legality with morality is undeserving of someone who calls himself MR REALITY. There are a number of unjust laws, and lots of people in our country are robbing the wealth of others, LEGALLY, but that doesn't make it right, IMO.

William Bednarz

November 23, 2012 2:18pm

.C H E A P . . . I've heard stories of them opening their doors early - which kills the deals on those who want to arrive later. Lined up they give you a pass and a ticket for the item you want... and stand inside nIce and warm and cofmy.
BUT THAT KILLS THE SPIRIT OF BLACK FRIDAY.......
. . TODAY IS BLACK FRIDAY.......I'LL FINISH MY COMMENT..... AFTER I FIND OUT ...IF THEY'RE STILL IN BUSINESS

Robin Martin

November 23, 2012 12:41pm

Don't shop at WalMart, ever. If you can't afford other stores, you're not shopping sales, using coupons, or buying the right amount of the right things at the right time. People who complain about WalMart have only themselves to blame. You gotta have a car to get to WalMart, so drive a little further. Or do something to lower your shopping expenses. Have a garden, a few chickens, use wash cloths instead of paper towels, make your own bread. There is an endless list of ways to cut your cost of living. Most people are too lazy to do these things. They'd rather over-pay for all the crap WalMart sells. The damage WalMart does to our country by selling cheap, useless junk from China, and non-nutritious junk food is incalculable. Just say no, and change your life style from consumer of dreck to producer of sustainable, necessary stuff.

wmartin46

November 23, 2012 10:44am

The solution to this problem is simple. If you don't approve of Walmart as a company--then don't work for them, and don't buy from them.

Kittyangel

November 23, 2012 10:41am

IN ADDITION to treating their workers like crap, not paying their fair share of income taxes on their (gargantuan) profits, and sucking money out of the healthcare system by forcing its workers to apply for Medicaid funding, Wal-Mart also wipes out many/any small businesses within a 5 mile radius wherever it decides to open another "superstore".

Yeah, sure, our elected representatives are "all about" small businesses.....until they are up against a corporate behemoth like Wal-Mart, then, it's like....uh, what small business owner?

Dave Moff

November 23, 2012 10:31am

I have been "on strike" against Wal-Mart for some years. I do not shop there. Their "lowest prices" tend to amount to a few cents on a limited number of brands. I will happily pay the extra few cents to a store which treats its workers as human beings. I encourage all to do the same.

MNhistoryfan's picture
MNhistoryfan

November 23, 2012 10:57am

I never shop at Wal-Mart and I am glad to see this strike. I shopped at Wal-Mart once, in a small southern town, where there were no other alternatives.
They have arrogantly shafted their employees for years (even making them work beyond their shift) and making them sign up for Medicaid, and their providers (forcing their prices down), and keeping it all for themselves. This is capitalism at its worst.

Arachne646

November 23, 2012 8:06am

Walmart is listening!

Maemaggi

November 23, 2012 12:00pm

Here is the problem: We have been forced into buying at Walmart. All the smaller stores are gone. Live in a small beach town in Fla. We have no choice but to buy there. They have put everyone else out of business. In regards to the Super Walmart where food is concerned, we have one competitor which is worse. Publix, who treat there employees just the same and the prices are three times as much. What do we do? We hate Walmart, feel absolutely guilty walking in the store and giving them a dime. Would love to be able to go elsewhere but you can't buy everything at Costco. Things have to change. Unfortunately, I do not see most of the employees right now at least where I live about to strike. None of them even speak English and there absolutely afraid of the meager money they get as a pay check to be stopped. A bigger intervention is needed here. A good start though.