Walmart’s Summer of Discontent Explodes in Black Friday Strikes
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.