Black Friday may be an unofficial U.S. shopping holiday, but Walmart workers and their supporters are set on redefining the day. In protests planned for 1,500 Walmart stores around the country, members of the union-backed Walmart worker group OUR Walmart will walk off the job and protest the labor conditions at and retaliation from the nation’s largest retailer and employer.
Dominic Ware will be among them. Ware, a 27-year-old former Walmart associate and member of OUR Walmart, was fired this summer after taking part in a 14-day work stoppage to protest the poor wages and treatment he received in his two years at the store. “We’re going to turn it into a day for workers,” Ware said ahead of the Thanksgiving and Friday protests, which will include worker walkouts, teach-ins and protests outside stores. “We’re going to show people the truth and put Walmart on blast.”
Organizers have promised that this year’s will top 2012’s protests, which took place in 100 U.S. cities. The Walmart protests come amid a wave of low-wage worker strikes and continued economic instability and growing inequality. They reflect a political and economic movement. “Black Friday is the new Labor Day,” says Peter Dreier, a professor of policy at Occidental College. “Instead of picnics we’re seeing protests by a wide spectrum of Americans standing up against Walmart. The issue of the working poor is galvanizing the country and many … families realize you can’t have a decent society if people are working poverty wages.”
Walmart is set on appearing unfazed. “This is the busiest time of year for Walmart and we’re really focused on serving our customers to make sure they’re having the best holiday season ever,” Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan told Huffington Post. Walmart stores, including its 24-hour stores, opened for regular hours on Thanksgiving, and their holiday shopping sales started Thursday.
After last year’s Black Friday protests, the company dismissed them as a nuisance that did not put a dent in their sales. The company certainly hopes the same will be true this year. Walmart has 4,783 U.S. locations; protests are planned for 1,500 of them. And yet, in recent years Walmart revenue has been on the decline and the company has lowered expectations for this holiday shopping season.”Some customers feel uncertainty about the economy, government, [and] job stability,” Walmart CEO Mike Duke said of its earnings this fall, USA Today reported.
As the nation’s largest retailer and employer, many of Walmart’s own workers make up their low-income consumer base. Two-thirds of Walmart’s 1.3 million-member workforce make less than $25,000 a year, former CEO Bill Simon inadvertently announced this year at a conference as he was touting the company’s “great job opportunities.” That’s only slightly more than the federal poverty level for a family of four in 2013: $23,550.
Such statistics underscore a central complaint of protesting Walmart workers: Associate pay is so low that too many workers, even Walmart veterans who work 40 hours a week at managerial positions, are forced to rely on public assistance such as SNAP benefits and Medicaid to make ends meet. However, the Walton family’s wealth currently totals more than $144 billion, roughly equal to the bottom 42 percent of Americans, according to Dreier.
In a short span of time OUR Walmart has shone a light on the retail giant’s labor practices, putting workers at the center of the story. OUR Walmart began their public actions last October in their first coordinated strike, and organized their first Black Friday walkout last November. In June of this year, workers from 30 cities caravanned to Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas to demand better pay and an end to the disrespectful treatment and manipulative scheduling which OUR Walmart workers say typify their retail experience. Earlier this month, 54 people were arrested outside a brand-new Walmart location in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. It was the largest act of civil disobedience in Walmart history, organizers said.
The stakes for Walmart workers who protest are very real. Ware took part in the Ride for Respect to Bentonville this summer. There, he spoke up about the poor treatment he received as a Walmart associate: erratic, unpredictable scheduling of shifts, little respect on the job, embarrassingly low wages. But a month later, he was fired for his actions. Walmart did not recognize his 14-day absence as as strike.
Ware has since found a new job, but he’s going to keep protesting. “I need Walmart to know they cannot retaliate against workers for speaking out.”
“Some people really do spend 20 to 30 years in retail,” Ware said. “It really is a career now and we have to treat it that way. And Walmart’s way of doing things is not working in today’s economy.”