Economy

Walmart Workers Escalate Thanksgiving Wage Protests With Weeks Of Fasting

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Protesters outside a Walmart location on Black Friday in 2013

Tired of being left to rely on the charity of others to feed their families, Walmart workers around the country are launching two weeks of fasting in the run-up to Thanksgiving to demand livable wages and full-time schedules.

“I’ve had to forgo meals so my boys would have enough to eat,” Walmart associate Jasmine Dixon said Thursday on a press call organized by OUR Walmart. “If it wasn’t for food stamps I don’t know what I would do.”

Dixon is one of about 100 employees so far who’s signed up to fast in the two weeks leading into Black Friday, the biggest single sales day of the year for many retail companies. The types of fasting range widely – some workers are forgoing all solid food for the full fortnight, others are conducting sunup-sundown fasts where they consume no nutrition during daylight, and others are committing to “Daniel fasts” wherein they remove certain items from their diet but otherwise eat normally.

The duration of the fasting also varies depending on what people are able to pledge, fast organizers said, noting that more than 1,000 people who don’t work for the company have also committed to solidarity fasts during the period. “For most the fast will be a liquid only fast for one or fifteen days,” OUR Walmart’s Daniel Schlademan told ThinkProgress. The group is working with nurses’ organizations to provide health support for fasters, he said.

Some workers simply can’t fast and are looking to pressure the company in other ways. Walmart associate Nancy Reynolds cannot restrict her diet safely because she has diabetes.

“My mother grew up during the Depression and she passed along lessons on how to get through hard times. They’re lessons I use today while working at Walmart,” Reynolds told reporters Thursday. “A lot of times I’ve had to get chicken nuggets because that’s all the money I had,” Reynolds said. She described splitting an order of nuggets in the break room at Walmart “because my coworkers were hungry.”

Instead of fasting, Reynolds has initiated a petition calling on the company to give workers a 10 percent employee discount year-round on all food items, in addition to demanding a $15 hourly wage and full-time scheduling for associates.

In the spring, Walmart announced it would raise its wage floor to $10 an hour. That’s still a far cry from what workers need to earn to live securely in terms of basic nutrition and financial stability. But it’s an explicit acknowledgment that the company’s decades-long commitment to keeping its labor costs as low as possible had backfired, costing the company customers as well as chronic bad press. The company has also introduced a new scheduling system that gives workers more input to when they’re put on the clock. In the past, managers did not consult workers on schedules and the resulting unpredictability made it all but impossible for the company’s employees to find a second job.

Prior to those changes, the numbers on Walmart’s reliance on taxpayer-funded safety net programs for its profit margins were staggering. Each individual Walmart Superstore incurred a million dollars per year in food stamps, welfare, and other safety net costs for its underpaid part-time work crews. Low wages economy-wide engender an estimated quarter-trillion dollars’ worth of assistance spending yearly.

Bumping workers up to $10 an hour and keeping them on part-time schedules is unlikely to put a major dent in those figures. Even if Walmart committed to full-time schedules across the board, its frontline employees would pull down less than $21,000 a year in gross pay – barely above the income threshold for food stamps for a family of two, and well below it for any larger household.

The rolling, partial hunger strikes are an escalation of worker activism compared to years past. Last year, a dozen workers and supporters held a 24-hour Thanksgiving fast in protest of the company’s wages and scheduling policies. But the vast majority of worker activism around Thanksgiving and Black Friday has involved traditional strikes and rallies. Last year, a week of walkouts and rallies outside stores culminated in Black Friday protests at 1,000 different locations, and a handful of arrests in Chicago.

Walmart has been opening its stores on Thanksgiving day itself for the past few years, along with a number of other retailers. Last year almost a million Walmart employees had to come in on the holiday. Other companies have veered the other direction, staying closed through the day and night of Thanksgiving. Office supply giant Staples has required people to work on Thanksgiving for the past two years, but announced in October that it is abandoning the policy and reinstating workers’ holiday. Outdoor gear megastore REI is going even further, cancelling Black Friday and encouraging both workers and customers to spend the day outside instead of stampeding for doorbusters.