As Americans rushed to take advantage of jaw dropping deals this Black Friday, thousands of Walmart employees and labor union members protested at 1,000 stores across the country for higher wages and consistent full-time work. At least 11 Walmart workers and supporters were arrested for blocking traffic outside a Walmart in Chicago.
The strikes, organized for the third year in a row by the labor group OUR Walmart and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, come after a week of actions in which workers walked off the job in 10 states, employees in Los Angeles staged a fast, and workers in D.C. orchestrated a sit-in. The associates wore masking tape over their mouths to protest of Walmart “silencing of employees who complain about working conditions,” Al Jazeera America reported.
Barbara Gertz, an overnight stocker at a Walmart in Colorado, told NJ.com she earns $10.40 an hour, not enough to help her stepdaughter pay for college, fix a broken tooth, or ever be able to take a vacation.
“This isn’t just about me. This is about all Walmart communities,” she said. “Sure the retaliation’s a concern, that they could fire me, but to me, it’s more important to speak up for my rights.”
Ronee Hinton, a cashier at a Walmart in Maryland, urged the company to increase wages to at least $15 and hour and provide for more consistent, full-time work. “It’s very hard on what I earn,” Hinton, who makes $8.40 an hour told the New York Times. “Right now I’m on food stamps and am applying for medical assistance. It would help a lot to get full time.”
While there are no figures for how many Walmart workers are struggling with hunger, one report estimated that 88 percent of food bank recipients earn $25,000 a year or less, which is what the majority of Walmart workers make. The store’s low-wages also lead employees to qualify for millions in public benefits, including programs like food stamps and school lunch.
Workers also protested the company for forcing employees to work on a holiday that is traditionally reserved for spending with family and friends. It is one of 12 major chains that was open on Thanksgiving day. “We chose today, because it’s the biggest thing for Walmart,” Kiana Howard, who works as a cashier at a Walmart in California, told a local CBS affiliate. “They stole our Thanksgiving.” The store opened Thanksgiving day at 6 AM and will not close until midnight on Saturday.
Walmart spokespeople have dismissed the actions as the work of labor unions, not real Walmart employees. “The crowds are made up of paid union demonstrators and they are not representative of our 1.3 million associates across the country,” Amanda Henneberg, Walmart spokesperson, said. “It’s unfortunate that this group attempts to disrupt the holiday spirit to push their agenda. The reality is that Walmart is focused every day on providing our associates with opportunities for job growth.” The company, which says it offers employees competitive wages at an average of $12 an hour, also noted that fewer associates called out absent than do on a typical day.
Last year, the National Labor Relations Board accused the company of illegally retaliating against 70 workers in 13 states for participating in the previous protest actions. Leaked Walmart documents have also revealed the company’s efforts to keep workers from forming unions by instructing managers to report suspicious activity and warning workers that joining OUR Walmart could hurt them.