For the third Black Friday running, America’s largest retailer is expected to face labor protests at locations across the country. Workers and supporters affiliated with the union-backed labor campaign OUR Walmart say this Friday will be their biggest strike yet.
OUR Walmart first burst onto the scene two years ago, when it used Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, to launch an unprecedented, nationwide strike against Walmart. The group originally demanded that Walmart pay all employees a base salary of at least $25,000 per year, but has since joined with striking fast food workers in demanding at least $15 per hour.
Workers affiliated with OUR Walmart claim the retailer pays so little that some employees don’t even have the means to feed their families. The campaign has also filed legal complaints accusing Walmart of illegally retaliating against strikers, sometimes by firing them.
As with OUR Walmart’s first major action in 2012, this year’s Black Friday protests will not be a typical strike. Many of those picketing Walmart — perhaps even most — will be outside supporters of the OUR Walmart campaign, not store employees themselves. Those employees who do walk off the job will likely do so for just one day. Yet OUR Walmart has said that their prior work stoppages are legally protected strikes, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has agreed. Strikes over wages and working conditions, or over an alleged ULP (unfair labor practice), such as illegally retaliating against workers, are protected by federal law.
Cantare Davunt, a Minnesota-based customer service manager for Walmart and an OUR Walmart member, told reporters on a recent conference call that she had just recently started the process of applying for food stamps because her wages are so low.
“We know the pain of going hungry and we see it in our co-workers’ eyes,” she said.
Barbara Gertz, a Walmart employee and longtime OUR Walmart member from Colorado, told Al Jazeera she has been the target of subtle acts of retaliation such as being passed over for opportunities.
“They haven’t tried to fire me yet,” she said. “But I’ve seen them retaliate in large ways against my co-workers, and they’ve kicked me out of a store just for walking through it with my OUR Walmart T-shirt.”
Walmart has challenged the allegations of illegal retaliation in court, arguing in part that OUR Walmart work stoppages are not legally protected strikes. Speaking to Al Jazeera about the accusations of low wages, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said an internal review by the company had concluded that its employment policies actually do a great deal to lift people out of poverty.
“We see people move off of public assistance relatively quickly when they come to work at Walmart, because of the jobs and the opportunities to move up,” he said.
Lundberg declined to share exact figures from the company’s internal review, but cited a 2005 report called “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story,” written by Jason Furman, who is now chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Furman’s report argues that the large number of Americans who are apparently willing to work for Walmart “demonstrates that its compensation is at least as good as the alternatives.”
Walmart has long maintained that OUR Walmart strikes and protests are largely driven by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the campaign’s main institutional backer.
“What they don’t turn out, by and large, is people that actually work for the company,” said Lundberg. “Last year, we were aware of 20 of our 1.3 million folks that participated in this demonstration.”
An organizer close to the OUR Walmart campaign disputed that estimate off the record, but did not provide a competing figure. After the first strike in November 2012, Walmart claimed that only 50 of its employees had participated, whereas strike organizers put the number at more than 500. This year, OUR Walmart hopes to exceed that figure, though they have not released an estimate for how many strikers they expect.
Nobody actually went on strike during the 2013 protests, though OUR Walmart says workers and community supporters protested at 1,448 stores that year (Walmart claims it was fewer than 300 stores). But this year, OUR Walmart has promised work stoppages. Some employees in Ohio went on strike a week ahead of time.
Gertz, the Colorado OUR Walmart member, said alleged retaliation has only emboldened protesting workers.
“Our membership has grown from just a few hundred in the very beginning,” she said. “Now we’re in the thousands, so I’d say it’s made workers mad.”